EDITORIAL

Is a public document under lock and key really public?

Posted

How is your local government spending more than $26 million of your money?

Next Thursday, you’ll have a chance to take a front-row seat as a contract to turn 5731 Broadway into a transitional homeless facility is set to be decided. 

That is, as long as you’re willing to make the trek to Manhattan.

You also have a chance to peruse the actual agreement between the city and Praxis Housing Initiatives. That is, if you’re willing to go through so much red tape, you’d think Bill de Blasio was tasked to give you a personal tour of Area 51.

Did you even know you could look at the contract in advance? It’s not like you can request it be emailed to you, or find it somewhere online. No, you have to travel to the World Trade Center complex on certain days, during certain hours. And even though they don’t make it clear in advance, you’d better have an appointment.

The particular contract for 5731 Broadway is located on the 37th floor of 4 World Trade Center. But you would only know that if you were able to determine that 150 Greenwich St. was actually 4 World Trade Center. If you go to the building, which just opened a few years ago, you might be able to find that very address above one of the side entrances — once you ask for the scaffolding to be removed.

The lobby looks more like a hotel than anything else. There’s so much security, it would be hard not to wonder if there wasn’t a commercial jetliner involved somewhere.

Nothing in the lobby indicates you’re in the right building. None of the security talks to you, unless you talk to them. 

Once you find the right security guy (at the far end of one of the desks), he asks for identification, and then looks you up in the system.

That’s where the appointment is necessary — something the public announcement never states as a requirement. Sure, the announcement suggests you can make an appointment to review the contract, but the DMV does the same thing — yet you can still walk in.

After all that, you’re finally ushered into an elevator and sent to the 37th floor — only to find yet another security officer who, at least in our visit Monday, had no idea why you were there. Tell him you’re inspecting public documents and expect a dumbfounded look in return.

A few phone calls and about 10 minutes later, two people from the city’s human resources administration finally show up, direct you into a conference room, and put the contract in front of you on a table. They then sit there and stare at you while you flip through it, as if the contract was an inmate at a maximum security prison on visitor day.

Want to record some voice notes about what you read? Nope. Want to use your smartphone to snap pictures of the pages? Forget it. You’re only free to use old-fashioned pen and paper, or if you’re lacking that, better hope that memory is as photographic as you claimed.

An analysis released last year by Politifact from the University of Missouri detailed more than 30 officeholders in New York have been accused or convicted of wrongdoing over the past decade. 

That’s more than any other state, by far. And New York has led that category for decades.

While there are obviously many factors that contribute to corruption, a primary one is lack of oversight. It’s the very reason why public records and public access laws exist — so that we, the people who these elected officials serve, are accountable for how they spend our money, and how they lead us.

Providing public records access, however, is not the same as making that access as convenient as possible. By making the contract only accessible in person, miles away from the subject property (and the people it affects), in a rather nondescript location, armed with security to the teeth — who is going to have (or want to make) the time to ensure our government officials are spending our tax money appropriately?

And if no one is going to check up on you, it becomes far too easy to do things you shouldn’t — and that’s why public access laws are so important. 

There is absolutely no reason for this contract — or really any contract that commits millions of taxpayer dollars — should be such a secret. Whether it’s a draft contract or not, the people who are providing the money for this venture (the taxpayers) have every right to inspect that document.

It’s the 21st century. That contract could go online, it could be emailed to those who request it. For a buck or two, it can even be mailed through the postal service for those who aren’t tech savvy.

If our elected officials truly are fighting corruption, then they need to introduce legislation that will end this arcane practice once and for all. 

It’s our money. We have a right to know.

Homeless,

Comments

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GBD10463

Thank you for this glimpse of the absurd and abstruse process needed for liberating what purports to be public information.

As I wrote on 7/27, in reply to the article on the homeless housing situation, "Some pool of information exists somewhere, while a project moves from design to building to completion. Who knows the details, and how is this information to be accessed? If the specifics on these projects are not forthcoming, then "open government" is a farce."

Yup, it's just as I feared. It can't be easily accessed. Yet, as the editorial states in closing, "It’s our money. We have a right to know." Do they know that we have a right to know???

Friday, August 11
RiverdaleTheBronx

Agree Completely. This is just absurd. Unfortunately greater Riverdale/Kingsbridge just seems to accept whatever the Deblasio / ultra leftist progressive liberals tell them is good for them while reaping none of the benefits. We have become the new dumping ground for the city, while areas like the South Bronx have greatly improved to the point of being trendy, and parts of Brooklyn once downtrodden and neglected have completely transformed into urban oasises with no shortage of great stores and businesses catering to the needs of the residents (Just ask landlord DeBlasio)

We can't even get a greenway, while other boroughs get a high line and an underground park.

How about just cleaning up Van Cortlandt park once in a while?

Never mind a street rail system like Brooklyn is getting, or ferry service like other parts of the Bronx and Queens are getting. While Riverdale has to fight for One, just One extra bus that doesn't even make a dent in the lousy service. How about electing council members and representives that actually fight for what we deserve, not just pay lip service and take photo ops, while spending most of their time on side gigs.

How much have we reaped in rewards from the economic recovery? A couple of chain malls? Empty storefronts?

It is obvious why they keep contractual details hidden from us, they don't want us to see how much our neighborhood has been shortchanged these past decades.

Saturday, August 12
RiverdaleTheBronx

And need I remind the community of how another project shoved down our throat went?

Remember the croton filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park?

Did you enjoy that?

How are those new Bronx parks from the mitigation fund promised to you working out?

That went well didn't it? How well did it stick within budget? Did you enjoy the loss of your parkland? Do you trust your elected officials more or less after allowing that to happen? How did it effect your water bills? Was it even necessary to build it here, in our own coveted park?

Who profited? Who absorbed the costs?

These questions will be on the test, and the test is going on now behind your back, on Broadway.

Finals will be on Election Day. Study hard.

Saturday, August 12
Bxju

Bravo. This is what true shoe leather journalism is about. Public is usually distracted by the big gets. Things that matter are less glamorous, but so much more important, and so much harder to uncover. Thank you, Riverdale Press.

Tuesday, August 15