Public Advocate reboots dormant public information oversight panel

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio seeks better public access to government information - but first he must keep an oversight panel alive without a budget. AP Photo/Robert Mecea

As a new city commission seeks to eliminate unneeded appendages of government, the Public Advocate is now looking to reboot a body that has only had two meetings since its founding more than 20 years ago.

The 1989 City Charter created the Commission on Public Information & Communication (COPIC), chaired by the Public Advocate. COPIC held its first meeting in 2007; its second, this February.

COPIC is tasked with helping the public obtain access to city information, reviewing city policies on public access to information, and developing recommendations to improve access to and distribution of city data.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s senior advisor Jeff Merritt told the World the commission is still “a work in progress.”

“This is one of the entities that’s been inactive for a lot of years in the charter, and as a result, there’s no staff, no formalities, and there isn’t a budget,” he said. 

The Public Advocate only launched a web page for the commission in the past year, and Merritt noted that his office has no clear record of the commission’s past work.

While COPIC is chaired by the Public Advocate, six of its 11 appointees are selected by or work for the mayor, effectively handing the mayor control. Two more are appointed by the Public Advocate and borough presidents, and one must be a member of the City Council. (The president of WNYC radio, formerly owned by the city, is also conscripted.) The appointees who do not hold public office are supposed to receive per diem compensation for each day they serve on the commission.

Gene Russianoff, a COPIC member from 1992 to 2000 appointed by then-public advocate Mark Green, said the commission was “so poorly funded at the time” that he voluntarily gave back his per diems to the commission, and believes the other paid members did the same.

Former public advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who held the post from 2002 to 2009, blames Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the commission’s lack of traction during her tenure.

“The mayor didn’t put any money in it, he wasn’t interested, even though there were always promises and his representatives seemed very enthusiastic, but nothing ever happened,” she said. “I was fighting for my life every minute in my office, my office budget was cut all the time, and I tried to raise private money for the commission but it was a constant fight. The mayor didn’t like the office, and I would go to the Speaker and beg the Speaker to give me money.”

Russianoff admits that COPIC’s main legacy was the first cable-casting of city council proceedings — “C-Span for city government that would allow the public to watch council committees in operation.” He says he hopes current public advocate Bill de Blasio’s renewed interest in the commission will give it a larger impact.

In its meeting this year, the Public Advocate updated members about his office’s efforts to improve city agency responses to freedom of information requests. Councilmember Gale Brewer, who also sits on COPIC, briefed the group on bills expanding public access to government information – in particular Intro 29A, subsequently signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The measure, sponsored by Brewer, will require city agencies to post all their data online in machine-readable form.

Brewer chairs the council’s governmental operations committee, and also sits on the commission now cleaning out unused and outdated bodies. She says she expects COPIC to survive the review. “I don’t know why the mayor’s office didn’t support it, but I believe we can do COPIC without money,” said Brewer.

Gotbaum, however, insists a formal budget is needed before the information commission can actually be effective. “I would not want to see a revival of COPIC if it’s not going to do anything,” she said. “We are now bigger on data than ever, and COPIC could do a lot with increased funding.”

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