Is a public document under lock and key really public?


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.