Capital New York Public Advocate to Relaunch Public-Information Commission by Miranda Neubauer
The City Council on Wednesday confirmed Councilman Ben Kallos as its appointee to the Commission on Public Information and Communication, one day before Public Advocate Letitia James plans to hold a hearing on the commission.
Though often invoked by city open government advocates, the commission, which aims to improve access to city information and data, has held only infrequent meetings and has had little influence in recent years.
In remarks before the rules committee on Wednesday morning, Kallos said that the "great commission" was one reason he had wanted to become chair of the Governmental Operations committee, which has oversight over COPIC.
"It has been slightly dysfunctional and hasn't been meeting," he said. "We have a great leader in our public advocate, Tish James, and I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to ... [work] with our public advocate to get the word out on all the information and all the great things this government does."
Kallos also said he has a 30-page memo co-written with former public advocate Mark Green detailing the potential of the commission.
Established with a 1989 amendment to the City Charter, the commission, chaired by the public advocate, is charged with educating and providing outreach to the public on ways of accessing city information and developing strategies for how communications technologies can improve access to city data.
In addition to the public advocate, the commission includes representatives of the director of operations, the commissioner of the department of records and information services, the commissioner of information technology and telecommunications, a council representative and a representative of the borough presidents. The charter also stipulates that the commission include a mayoral appointee who "is or has been a representative of the news media" and another who is a representative of the community boards.
"We’re expecting representatives from DoRIS, DoITT, Law, Operations, and NYC Media, and we’re looking forward to working together with fellow COPIC members to be the most effective commission possible for New Yorkers," Christina Levin, assistant press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote in an email Wednesday.
The charter states that the commission should "hold at least one public hearing each year on city information policies and issue at least one report each year with such recommendations as the commission deems advisable."
The first and last recorded meeting of the commission under then-public advocate Bill de Blasio was in February 2012.
According to minutes of that meeting that are archived online, "de Blasio stressed his view that COPIC should push government to do better when it comes to ensuring access to public information and can also help encourage greater cooperation and collaboration between agencies. Public Advocate de Blasio expressed his desire to see COPIC disseminate best practices, encourage agencies to work better, and give a forceful push when progress is not being made."
Previous meetings of the commission occurred in September 2007 under then-public advocate Betsy Gotbaum and in 1998 under Green.
In archived minutes of the 2007 meeting, Gotbaum notes that in the early '90s, COPIC contributed to the establishment of WNYC, published a Public Data Directory, and in 1998 published a guide to the New York State FOIL and Open Meetings Law.
Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer, who worked on legislation to help establish the commission in 1989, noted at an open government workshop of the Personal Democracy Forum this summer that "Public Advocate Bill de Blasio was there for four years, I bugged him for three years, he finally had a COPIC meeting, I was on the COPIC meeting, and he had one meeting of COPIC."
"I've been involved with COPIC since its infancy, and have always been a strong believer that it has an important role to play in city technology policy," Brewer said in a statement Wednesday. "I hope Public Advocate James will bring COPIC back to life with regular meetings and greater oversight of the vast amounts of city data now available under the Open Data Law I sponsored on the Council."
According to a post on James' website, Thursday's hearing will "discuss ways of increasing public access to governmental information and data" and will be livestreamed.
In a brief interview Tuesday, Brendan Brosh, press secretary for James, said the agenda for Thursday's meeting was still being finalized and that there would "100 percent" be further COPIC meetings. COPIC now also has a Twitter account.
"COPIC has not been an important part of the public discussion on civic technology for a great while," John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and co-chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group wrote in an email Tuesday. "COPIC requires the active cooperation of the Mayor's Office, and Mayor Bloomberg was not interested in giving the Public Advocate a platform for their opinions on technology. It is doubtful that Mayor de Blasio is interested in COPIC, since he wasn't as Public Advocate," he wrote. "The City Council is not overly enthusiastic about COPIC because they already exercise oversight over I.T. operations and spending and approve the executive budget."
He also pointed out that another factor was the Public Advocate's small budget, making it difficult to staff COPIC and to do the necessary policy research to prompt public discussion about public information technology. Kaehny also noted that none of the groups in the T.W.G. were aware of Thursday's meeting before this reporter's inquiry and that "ironically" they had already scheduled their own meeting at the same time.
Kallos had noted during this summer's Personal Democracy Forum workshop that he had made inquiries to O.M.B. about funding COPIC.