No good reason to muzzle state workers

The New York State Department of Transportation has made itself a poster child for hierarchical lockstep by forcing out Essex County engineer Mike Fayette because he talked to an Enterprise reporter last year.

In that supposedly illicit interview, Fayette praised his agency to the skies, telling reporter Chris Knight how proud he was of the DOT’s response to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, when flooding from the rain wiped out a section of state Route 73 and other roads, bridges, etc. Why fire him for that?

The problem, apparently, is that DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald wanted to be the one to do that interview. She – and/or her boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo – wanted her name in print, associated with all that good work on the ground that Fayette and his co-workers did.

To do that interview instead of Mr. Fayette, she would’ve had to do one of two things:

She could have spoken in vague terms, and then the public would have been less informed. Fluffy, nondescript praise would have done little to answer the public’s questions. Mr. Fayette, on the other hand, was able to tell readers what state road workers saw in the storm’s aftermath, what they did about it, how hard it was and how they felt about it. He was there.

Or Commissioner McDonald (or, more likely, one of her staff members) could have asked state workers about their experience and relayed that to the newspaper’s readers in her own voice. That would have made inaccuracy, exaggeration or spin more likely, and it would have removed the names of any on-the-ground workers who did the job. To a certain degree, it might sound like a top official taking credit for someone else’s work.

This is bad public policy. It needlessly restricts the flow of information to the public. It also shifts credit from where it’s due to power brokers, feeding their egos at others’ expense.

What the blazes is wrong about people who do jobs for the public, paid for by the public, talking to the public?

Nothing, of course.

There’s also nothing wrong with a top state official talking to the public.

Ideally, we would have both. The reporter could have gotten quotes from Mr. Fayette about the disaster cleanup on the ground and also from Commissioner McDonald about how, when the chips are down, the DOT rises to the challenge (or whatever else she might have wanted to say).

There’s no good reason to subtract state workers from the story.

Many in the Albany press corps immediately jumped on the Fayette story as an example of the Cuomo administration’s strict micromanagement of message. There’s something to that. We’ve seen here many of the same kind of things they’ve seen in Albany.

Many journalists point to the amazing growth of public information officers – aka spokespeople, PR people, etc. – at every level of state government. We’ve seen this, especially since Gov. Pataki’s administration, and agree that these people are used to limit information as well as to facilitate it. Some are better than others, but it’s always bad to muzzle the rank-and-file state workers and to make every answer secondhand or worse.

It means those workers who have expertise and have done work that is newsworthy don’t get their names in the paper anywhere near as much as they would if they were allowed to talk to reporters. It means a limitation of voices. It means hierarchy and consolidation of power.

It’s also expensive. Spokespeople get paid a fair bit. The state could save a lot by reducing their numbers to 1980s levels.

But they even muzzle spokespeople sometimes, if the governor or someone higher up the chain wants to take credit for something someone else did.

A good example just happened Friday, during our coverage of a plane crash Thursday night in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness. We had just posted on our website a follow-up story about Gov. Cuomo praising the rescuers, when Dave Winchell called. Dave is the spokesman for the DEC’s Region 5, and he had been busting his butt all morning to gather information about the crash and consolidate it for the public. Now he was calling to ask the editor to change, online, the attribution of a long quote detailing the rescue. He had written it, and we had quoted it from his press release and attributed it to “a statement from the DEC.” He asked us to say it was from the governor’s office, not the DEC, since the governor’s office had reissued his press release.

The editor told him no. No one from the governor’s office had spent a morning chasing down forest rangers and dispatchers to piece together a narrative. Dave had, and he works for DEC, Region 5, right here in Ray Brook.

When asked, Dave said it wasn’t the governor’s office that had asked him to make the change; that order came from DEC in Albany.

It was no big deal, but coming the same week as the Fayette situation, it’s significant.

The Fayette example is an extreme one. What makes it crazier is that the day after the Enterprise reported this, Howard Glaser, a top official for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, went on an Albany radio show and read on the air details from Mr. Fayette’s personnel file about how, a couple of years ago, he was punished for misusing DOT equipment. The Enterprise had already reported that, and a DOT spokesman refused to answer questions about Mr. Fayette’s past discipline, saying it was a personnel issue. And so it is – to protect state workers’ privacy.

So is it OK to read that stuff on the radio? Mr. Glaser may have a lawsuit on his hands. This looks like a smear, an act of revenge against a whistleblower – and a foolish, hot-headed one.

It’s a sign that the tension involved with trying to muzzle so many workers may be breaking.

The Cuomo administration needs to chill out, respect its employees and let them talk to the public, including the press. Each does a different job that the people of this state are paying them for; they should be able to speak for themselves. In a body, the head shouldn’t take credit for everything the hands and feet do, and the same holds true for a state.

We also wonder whether this is a First Amendment issue.

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” the amendment reads, and high courts have extended that to apply to state governments as well. We’d love to see a court rule whether this state policy is constitutional, since in our minds it clearly violates the spirit of the amendment.