A new set of disclosure rules implemented by the Putnam County Legislature was revised last week just weeks after the confidentiality law faced backlash from scores of residents.
During the legislature’s full meeting last Tuesday, lawmakers voted 8-1 to make slight amendments to the confidentiality law, including scrapping a controversial measure where county officials and consultants were allowed to mark materials as confidential. The law still prohibits records created by or sent to the law department, the legislature’s legal counsel or outside counsel from becoming public unless all nine lawmakers agree to release the information.
The original law was passed by lawmakers in July in an 7-1 vote, much to the umbrage of residents that felt the proposal would decrease transparency within county government and questioned if it were even legal. County Executive MaryEllen Odell, after hosting two public hearings on the matter that brought out more than a dozen residents, signed the resolution into law, but said at the time she wanted lawmakers to make tweaks to it.
Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who was the sole no vote, said she still believes the law isn’t clear and it would be tough to decipher if a record can become public or not. She said county officials would need to check with the county law department before releasing any document.
“What if the county attorney is wrong about the applicability of FOIL to a particular document and we disclose that document, what if the county attorney says it’s OK and we disclose it and then we’ve still committed an ethical violation despite asking the county attorney for advice,” Montgomery, a Democrat, said.
Overall, the law puts a gag order on certain lawmakers, Montgomery argued.
“It needs more work,” she added.
Her Republican colleagues didn’t share her concerns.
Legislature Chairman Joe Castellano said issues that were mentioned by residents were being addressed with the amendments and FOIL procedure is still intact. Legislator Ginny Nacerino said the disclosure laws were not meant to reduce open government and were only ensuring that confidential information would not be disseminated.
Legislator Paul Jonke said the law makes legislators and employees accountable if information is shared with the public that shouldn’t be.
“There’s sensitive information that we come across and our employees come across that shouldn’t be disclosed,” Jonke said. “This protects this information.”
Legislator Neal Sullivan, who is the rules committee chairman that led the charge on the legislation, said in an interview the original law wasn’t meant to be so broad, which is why there were tweaks made.
Sullivan said the most important part of the legislation stops county officials from leaking private information to the public.
“We just tried to clean it up, to simplify it, to make it clearer for people to understand what we were trying to do,” Sullivan said.