A Little Sunlight In Dark December

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Researchers, reporters, advocates and others may have noticed the disappearance of a useful search tool from the Web page of the state Attorney General early this year – but now it’s back, in a vastly expanded site meant to increase government transparency.

Project Sunlight, made available Dec. 5, allows users to search across seven different state databases — legislation, lobbying, agency contracts, member items, campaign financing, for-profit corporations and nonprofit organizations — to track the workings of state government.

The version available now, considered an early phase of the product, won praise from good government groups.

“I am pretty impressed with the very ambitious goal of the Web site, in which they want to coordinate the information” in a contextual way, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “I think it is an excellent first step.”

In early 2007, the office of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo halted the function on its Charities Bureau Web site, which had allowed users to verify whether a nonprofit was in good standing in the state. The page also contained links to sites with additional information such as annual federal income and expense filings known as 990s.

For most of the year the site did not function and visitors saw the message, with no elaboration: “The Charities Registry Search is currently under maintenance. Please check again later.” Whether for an average citizen or a professional watchdog, “A Web site going down for a year is definitely problematic,” Lerner said.

The vastly expanded site, available at www.sunlightny.com, contains how-to videos and explanations of state government in addition to the filing information. Using the site, one can, for example, search for an elected official, read what bills he or she sponsored, who lobbied for the bills, and then check those names against campaign contributors.

One major current limitation is that much of the data from campaign contributions, member items, lobbyists and legislation is only from 2006 or 2007, leaving out data from earlier years, preventing a more comprehensive search of the kind previously possible.

Other weaknesses in the site are that it does not give the year for legislative grants known as member items; visitors viewing a Charities page and seeking 990s are told to go to a Freedom of Information Law link for pre-2006 records; it is missing for-profit corporations filed before 2006; and per-bill lobbying is not broken down by lobbyist.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment. However, in the statement accompanying Project Sunlight’s launch, the initial Web site was described as a “first step in an ongoing ‘civic dialogue’ on how best to improve and expand the site.”

“With ‘Project Sunlight,’ we are lifting the veil on Albany and helping citizens learn about their government,” Cuomo said. The initiative was first introduced during his campaign for attorney general as a way to reform New York’s notoriously dysfunctional state government.

Michael Clark, president of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, has high hopes for the site. “NPCC fully supports the intent of the site to add to the transparency of NYS government,” Clark said in an e-mail. “We look forward to refinements that will make it even more useful for those tracking legislation.”

Cristine Cronin, president of NYCharities.org, hoped nonprofits would be able to add to or correct information about themselves. “One improvement would be to allow charities to indicate they have a [Web site] and add it to the database,” Cronin said.

Aside from improving the transparency for New Yorkers, Project Sunlight puts New York in the vanguard of states offering comprehensive information through a single portal, good government advocates said.

In October the California Voter Foundation, a member of the Campaign Disclosure Project, released its annual study ranking states on their election finance disclosure laws, placing New York in 16th place.

Foundation president Kim Alexander said many government officials would be reluctant to put information on legislators, lobbyists and legislation together. “I have not seen very many state agencies take this kind of initiative and that is exciting,” Alexander said.

Edmund J. McMahon, Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for New York State Policy, said the site was a positive step, but one of its limitations is the lack of disclosure by government agencies. The project might push Albany to release more information.

“I think it is probably already producing more requests for legislation” aimed at increasing government transparency, McMahon said.

Lerner said her organization was going to let its members know about the Web site, but the state should put the word out as well. There was a flurry of press coverage at the beginning of the month when Project Sunlight was announced, but quiet since. “What is being done to let people know it exists?” she asked.

– Adam Pincus