What a difference a year—or an administration—can make.
On May 2, the organization Reclaim New York came to the Oyster Bay Town Hall to name the town as the first municipality to have adopted the group’s transparency standards. The non-profit’s executive director, Brandon Muir, said that in the space of a month, the town has met 23 of the 29 key online transparency indicators under the rubric of its Transparency Project.
According to a press release, “With their online project, Reclaim New York’s goal is to ultimately evaluate each local municipality in New York State on their online accessibility in different categories such as municipal transparency, fiscal transparency, access to information, and contracts, amongst others.”
“Our long-term mission is to improve the culture of transparency in New York,” Muir said at the press conference. “We lack transparency, but we also admit that we lack a real demand for it. No longer can we as citizens pay lip service to the idea that our role isn’t citizen-driven oversight. For far too long, we have outsourced our civic duty to others.”
The project, he added, “is turning the tide in this fight” through crowdsourcing and active participation. Reclaim said it is committed to government reform and accountability.
“When I took office, I promised to regain the faith and trust of our residents by ushering in a new era in the Town of Oyster Bay, one with the highest ethical standards, and complete transparency,” Supervisor Joseph Saladino stated. “When Reclaim New York approached the town about this transparency initiative, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to show how serious the town is about creating the most ethically operating town in the state of New York….The town was not only the first to submit to an evaluation by Reclaim New York, but also the first to make the changes necessary to earn the distinction of being a leader in transparency, to better help open the doors of town government to our residents.”
Muir announced that “the Town of Oyster Bay is the first municipality in New York state to adopt a vast majority—almost 80 percent—of Reclaim’s online accessibility and transparency indicators. The town is now posting its current budget in machine-readable format, all taxes and fee schedules, and ethics guidelines.”
Muir said it was important to maintain momentum, and to this end, his organization “will continue to train and consult both citizens and officials on the transparency roadmap. Each must play a role in responsive governance.”
Muir emphasized that, “The relationship between the taxpayers and governments needs very serious repair. We must strengthen that trust if our state is to get back on track.
“Transparency is not a hope or idea—it’s the law,” he added.
For Saladino, one of the high points in transparency practice came last month, when the town held 18 hours’ worth of open meetings in response to a request for proposals for firms wishing to operate food and beverage concessions at town parks and beaches. Open to the public and livestreamed through the town’s website for all residents, it concluded with the Town Board and Saladino publicly deliberating on the bids and then choosing the winning bidders.
“The [town] has become the standard bearer for transparency in the entire state of New York,” boasted Saladino. “No other town has been as focused and proactive as Oyster Bay. [It] has scored a nearly 80 percent overall grade, making Oyster Bay number one in the state at this point.”
He pledged to explore completing 100 percent of the transparency indicators, acknowledging that some of them will take time.
Muir said the Transparency Project was rolled out during the annual Sunshine Week in March. The week raises awareness about open government.
“We had national leaders in transparency…say to us that this is a model that can be used across the country,” Muir related. “We should not be imposing on local government officials to do this. We want them to buy into it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Muir said that since starting the partnership with Saladino, he’s been approached by other officials from across Long Island interested in participating.
“We’re not in the business of overburdening local governments, and we take that really seriously, because we’ve had those accusations thrown against us,” Muir said.
Saladino thanked Town Clerk James Altadonna, “who quite frankly has taken a leadership role in a large portion of this.
Last year, the town refused to turn over Reclaim’s request for what Muir called “its checkbook,” basic expenditure records. The group initiated an Article 78 lawsuit against the town and three school districts and the town consequently complied. The FOIL, according to a Nassau County Supreme Court decision ruling in Reclaim’s favor for attorney’s fees, sought “records of all vendor payments by the entities for the fiscal year 2014, including the name of the payee, date, amount, check number, the department or agency responsible for the expenditure, and the products or services purchased or other purpose of the payment.”
“The Town of Oyster Bay has shown it is serious about turning the page on years of controversy by being the first to adopt the vast majority of our comprehensive online transparency practices,” said Muir. “Supervisor Joseph Saladino, and the entire town staff, have helped Oyster Bay take a huge step toward a new era of open government by empowering citizens to call for change, and hold officials accountable.”
Oyster Bay Democrats denounced Saladino, as well as Reclaim, marking it as “a group with deep ties to the Trump administration.
“It’s laughable that the town is just now realizing in an election year that we need transparency, even though they’ve had decades to fix the problem. That’s not true transparency,” said town supervisor candidate Marc Herman, a Woodbury dentist. “It’s a stunt and, what’s worse, it’s fake reform. You can barely follow what the town is spending money on. The Town of Oyster Bay is the poster child for lack of transparency.”
The press release went on to note that Reclaim NY “is backed by Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer, noted Conservative mega donors, who also serve as director, chair and treasurer of the group. The group also claims Stephen Bannon, a former vice chairman of the organization, as a proud founder.”
The Mercers have been linked to President Donald Trump and reclusive patriarch Robert Mercer is reportedly one of Long Island’s richest individuals.
State Senator John Brooks, a Democrat serving the Eighth District, stated, “Today, officials in Oyster Bay have once again chosen partisanship over progress by partnering with Stephen Bannon’s out of touch Reclaim New York group. I have proposed legislation to provide real independent oversight of Oyster Bay that will bring transparency and fiscal responsibility to how the town operates. The taxpayers deserve more than window dressing—they deserve real change that will bring transparency to government, and the only way to do that is with clear, non-partisan reform.”
Reclaim New York spokesman Doug Kellogg responded, “This seems like a misguided attempt to politicize a completely non-partisan transparency project that has made information from hundreds of governments, controlled by both parties, available to all members of the public. Reclaim has even named officials from both parties in lawsuits to force the disclosure of spending information, including the prior administration in Oyster Bay.
“The reason [Oyster Bay]’s new commitment is so important for turning the page on past scandals, is that it empowers citizens, through better information, to become the watchdogs,” he added. “Only when citizens are active partners in reforming government will we see serious fiscal issues tackled.”
As far as the charge that his group’s efforts aim to “burden and shame” public officials, Kellogg replied, “We have used and followed transparency law to the letter, and that’s why we have won every case so far. Following the law isn’t a burden for officials, it’s the bare minimum they should do. We celebrate governments that go above and beyond on transparency, and we point out when officials fail to provide citizens the transparency they deserve. If anyone feels shamed by that, they probably did something they want to hide from constituents.”