Penn Station redevelopment rendering (photo: MTA)
A landmark open government bill passed the New York State Senate last week with a unanimous vote and the Assembly this week. The bill (S8419A-A9622-C)) would amend the urban development corporation act in relation to community advisory committees and usher new sunshine into how New York does some of its economic development business. After the Senate passes the slightly updated version that went through the Assembly, Governor Hochul should sign this bill into law immediately.
Sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Michaelle Solages, the bill is intended to fill the gap in transparency requirements for Empire State Development (ESD), a state authority. If the bill is passed into law, ESD would be mandated to make all its community advisory committee (CAC) materials, reports, and meeting minutes available to the public in a timely fashion. It would also make all CAC meetings open to the public.
When then-Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced the massive Penn Station area redevelopment project in 2020 at the height of covid, he refused to let my community board, the very community board where the project lies, provide local input. As the land use chair of Community Board 5 in Manhattan, the project fell under my purview. But ESD, the state agency leading Cuomo’s grand plan, decided that I would not participate because I was “opposed to the project,” as stated by ESD leadership to Community Board 5. While ESD was correct that I was opposed to the project, it should never be a reason to deny community participation. ESD’s tactics amounted to community suppression. As we continued to demand the right to fully participate, it became a bitter fight. We stood firm.
Only after I blew the whistle and told my story to the New York Post did ESD agree to let me attend and fully participate in the community advisory committee, without any threat of removal if I dared express my opposition to a plan that from the get-go was fatally flawed. ESD reconvened an expanded CAC, to which I was finally formally appointed and embarked in a series of weekly committee meetings.
But there was one huge caveat: the community advisory committee meetings would not be open to the public, and all attendees were on gag order. No information, data, reports or studies discussed during these meetings would be permitted to be shared with the broader public. The minutes of the first meeting note under point 9. CONFIDENTIALITY: “All CACWG members are reminded that CACWG meetings are confidential in nature.” We were especially put on notice not to talk to the media.
This gag order put us, community leaders, in a Kafkaesque situation: members of my own community board would ask me for updates on the Penn plan, and I would be prohibited from providing even a basic report about the facts. Information with major implications was revealed to members of the CAC, including potentially spending billions of taxpayer monies. But the small CAC group was not at liberty to share it with any outside party.
Alarmed by the total lack of transparency and accountability, the good government group Reinvent Albany submitted a FOIL request to obtain the materials from ESD. After a long and arduous process, Reinvent Albany was finally provided with the materials.
Only after Reinvent Albany published the documents to its website was the public at large, the media, and independent auditors such as the city’s Independent Budget Office able to grasp the full breadth of the plan, including its potentially devastating financial and fiscal implications.
Getting access to information from any government agency should not have to be so onerous. The public has a right to know how decisions that involve billions of dollars and could put taxpayers on the hook are made.
The bill passed by the State Senate and the Assembly aims to address the lack of transparency and underscores the lack of accountability from ESD on how it disburses money, or plans to issue and repay debt, and, as importantly, how it justifies such actions.
The bill’s memo notes, “Further, through these advisory bodies, ESD has provided information regarding the potential spending of billions in taxpayer dollars to a small group of individuals who in theory represent the community, but are not required to proactively share this information with the public at large.”
In the case of the Penn project, not only were we not required, we were barred by ESD from sharing any information with the public at large.
The bill’s memo refers to the Penn project by name and specifically notes its lack of transparency: “For example, for the Community Advisory Committee for the Penn Station Area project, it was not until after a FOIL request was filed for CAC materials that ESD posted a portion of the materials provided to the CAC on its website, months after this information was first made available to CAC members.”
The bill would also make community advisory meetings open to the public, allowing neighbors, the media, civic groups, and others to attend and be informed in a timely fashion.
After the bill’s passage in the Senate last week, Senator Ramos said in a statement, “New Yorkers should not have to go through an arduous FOIL process to see how the Empire State Development Corporation is spending the billions of taxpayer dollars it receives in our annual budget.”
The companion Assembly bill (A09622) passed yesterday. It is now back in the senate for ratification of an amendment. The bill’s passage and the governor’s signature will be a major accomplishment in delivering transparent, equitable decisions serving the greater good rather than special interests.
Governor Hochul modestly revised the Penn plan last year but she continues to push for its approval. With ESD’s continued activity around the project plan, the legislation is especially timely.
Good government requires trust and trust can’t exist without openness, accountability, and transparency. New Yorkers deserve nothing less.
Layla Law-Gisiko is Chair of the Land Use, Housing and Zoning Committee of Manhattan Community Board 5 and a member of the Penn Area GPP Community Advisory Committee Working Group. She is also a Democratic candidate for State Assembly in New York’s 75th District. On Twitter @laylaLawGisiko.