Residents of the Big Apple will have an easier time finding New York City’s laws online, under new legislation proposed by a handful of city council members.
Int. 149 requires New York City to post a complete copy of its city charter, administrative code and official rules on NYC.gov, Gotham’s official website. The data must be presented in a searchable format and updated regularly.
Sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander, who represents the 39th Council District in Brooklyn, the bill is a response to concerns that finding municipal laws are some of the most difficult civic information to find online.
State Laws Hide Beneath Paywalls
For years state governments have partnered with publishers to update and sift through their jumble of constantly changing legal codes, charging fees for any annotations, section titles, chapter summaries — and almost every alteration to make the texts coherent and digestible.
According to a press release issued by Council Member Ben Kallos, a co-sponsor of Int. 149, the city’s charter and administrative code are published as a part of the Laws of New York by the New York State Legislative Bill Commission. Three versions of the law are certified by the state Assembly Speaker and the Senate Temporary President. The printed documents are then sold to online information vendors.
The New York City Council currently pays for subscriptions to Westlaw so its staff can access NYC municipal code. Westlaw is a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters.
Scott Augustin, a spokesperson for Thomson Reuters, told Government Technology that the company believes in free and open access to public information. He pointed to FindLaw.com, a Thomson Reuters-owned domain, as a place where anyone can look up reference material on state and federal codes and legal issues. But full copies of municipal laws aren't available on the site.
“Our customers look to us for a complete collection of the law, and in a city like New York, that includes local laws,” Augustin said. “State and federal primary law on Westlaw is enhanced with expert analysis … [and] for someone with New York City law in their subscription, Westlaw search results would also yield on-point laws from city government, rounding out a complete view of an issue.”
In an interview with Government Technology, Kallos admitted that while city laws can be found online, they can be difficult to locate. For example, a Google search for “NYC Laws” returns a 18.104.22.168/nyc/ Web address attached to the New York Legal Publishing Corporation, with no clear delineation as to the authenticity of the information.
Only recently did Kallos learn that the New York Law Department contracted with the New York Legal Publishing Corporation to put the laws online, but they are only updated twice a year. The ability to search the site is also limited, so a person might have a hard time finding a code section if they didn’t know what they are looking for.
Kallos believes that city and other people subscribe to research sites like Westlaw, LexisNexis and others because it is the only way to know for certain that the law a person is looking at is current.
“That’s a broken model for a democracy,” Kallos said. “It’s actually more akin to what the Romans did, which was to take their laws and put them up at the top of 40-foot pillars, saying that they are freely available to look at – if you could climb it.”
Having a municipality’s laws online and easily available would seem to be a common first step for cities concerned with improving transparency. But Kallos said the issue of laws being inaccessible is more common in the U.S. than most people realize.
Kallos felt it has taken a long time for cities to address the issue, perhaps due to the revenue generated from selling publication of the laws to private companies.
“In my few months so far in office, I’ve stumbled across numerous places where the laws aren’t necessarily there to protect or serve the public, but a subset of the public,” Kallos said. “Often a special or corporate interest. And the legal publishing industry is huge.”
Looking ahead, Kallos noted that NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Administration was “incredibly friendly” to what Int. 149 was trying to achieve, and was confident that the ideals in the legislation will at some point get codified and serve as a model for the country.
“The goal isn’t so much about just New York City – it’s about setting a national standard and being a leader,” Kallos said. We want to make sure we post our laws with open standards in an open API, with bulk downloads, so that if an individual, or somebody in a nonprofit or a non-governmental organization, or even the government wants to do something to make the law more useful and accessible, they can.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.