DEC’s gag order

RAY BROOK – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration have made a point of highlighting tourism and recreation in the Adirondacks, but their tight control of state worker communications is getting in the way of such promotion.

In September, Cuomo and other top state officials took part in a press conference with writers from around the state at Boreas Ponds in the Central Adirondacks, where writers and government officials spent an afternoon paddling and fishing.

This January, in his State of the State address, Cuomo talked about a whitewater paddling challenge in the Adirondacks that would draw people from around the world.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens has also taken part in activities to promote this region, including the Boreas Ponds trip. He also led reporters on a cross-country ski trip to Great Camp Santanoni in Newcomb in February 2012.

These events drew attention to the Adirondacks and praise from local and state lawmakers.

However, this administration’s DEC press policy during day-to-day operations has frustrated many outdoor writers around the state, according to eight interviewed for this article.

“This is not just the bad-news-type stories. This is the good-news-type stories,” said Steve Piatt, editor of the Elizabethtown-based New York Outdoor News, a statewide publication that focuses on sportsmen’s issues.

At the heart of the issue is the DEC’s new method of handling press inquiries. Under the Cuomo administration, the department has taken much of the local control away from regional spokesmen and given it to the central office in Albany, which is in some cases hundreds of miles away from a writer’s readership. The DEC has three press officers in Albany.

“When we get press inquiries, (regional spokesmen) are supposed to alert our press office, and the central office coordinates all press responses,” Martens told the Enterprise in an interview Tuesday. “We do try to, wherever possible, line up interviews when they are requested, but we also, frequently as everyone knows, ask for questions in writing so we can respond in writing.”

The problem with the system, many writers say, is that the response time from these inquiries is often very slow, coming back days or weeks after the initial inquiries, if at all. Sometimes the responses are channelled through regional offices; other times they come directly from Albany. When interviews are granted, they are often being monitored by spokesmen who join the conference calls or sit in the room with the DEC employee being interviewed.

Historically, the access to DEC staff has varied by region and topic and governor. Until 2001, the department’s Region 5 didn’t have its own press officer, and staff members could freely talk to reporters on all but the most sensitive topics. Former Gov. George Pataki’s administration was considered tighter than the two that followed, but Cuomo’s has been the most restrictive with information, according to those interviewed for this article.

Reporters or columnists working on controversial topics have often gone through spokesmen, but quick and easy access has generally been granted to writers working on topics such as hunting and fishing.

“For years, the agreement with outdoor writers was that we could talk directly to biologists about innocuous issues like (fish) stocking and, you know, bear take and deer take, stuff like that,” said Glens Falls Post-Star reporter Don Lehman, who has had an outdoors column for 19 years and started noticing the problems in January.

Bill Hilts works full time as the outdoor sports specialist with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation, where his job is to promote the region, and as a freelance writer. He used a fishing article he was working on for the Lake Ontario Outdoors magazine as an example of the problem.

When Hilts attempted to contact DEC fisheries staff in his region for the article, he was turned away and told to talk to the Albany press office and submit his questions in writing. At first, he didn’t receive any response from Albany, he said. Then, after some prodding and delays, he received written answers. Ultimately, he missed his deadline, which was about 10 days from when he started his inquiry, he said.

The article that Hilts was working on wasn’t investigative or controversial. The submitted headline was “Lake Ontario Enjoys another Record Catch Year.”

The first line reads: “Last year was a very good year on Lake Ontario again!”

Hilts said he was especially bothered by the delay because the story couldn’t run in the winter edition of the publication, which is distributed at sportsmen trade shows that take place in his region early in the year. Instead, the article is expected to hit the next issue of the magazine, later this month.

“One of the big things that hurts me is the fact that I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I have established relationships or rapport with many wildlife or fisheries biologists, I could just call them up and they’d give me the straight scoop, you know,” Hilts said. “I could get information on whatever I needed. Now they are walking on eggshells. They can’t talk to the press. They’ve been instructed that the press has to go through the press office to get any information at all. Not only am I without critical information to do a good job of reporting, but it also creates a very negative work environment for all these lower-level staff.”

The issue has been raised in articles and columns on occasion, including by Syracuse Post-Standard outdoors writer Dave Figura. He wrote about the subject in a column on Jan. 27 after the topic was raised by Lance Robson, president of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Management Board, at the Onondaga County Federation of Sportmen’s Clubs meeting.

“Historically, the DEC is one of the few state agencies in which staff have been able to talk openly and freely about fish and wildlife rules and matters,” Figura quoted Robson as saying. “The fact is, sportsmen (through their licensing fees) are paying the majority of the department’s costs for its field staff, and they deserve to have all their questions answered. That’s not happening.”

In his column about the subject, Figura documented 12 instances between October and late January when the DEC failed to answer him or caused him to miss his deadline.

“Recent stories that required the submittal of written questions include the Salmon River hatchery’s annual fall egg collection, the proposed Otisco Lake boat launch, the low-water level of tributaries on Cayuga Lake and its impacts on fishing, cougars in the Adirondacks – or whether a deer is actually dead when its eyes are closed,” Figura wrote.

Figura also wrote that Robson “noted the governor’s gag order ranks among the top issues facing the state’s outdoors sportsmen.”

The one writer interviewed by the Enteprise who said he hasn’t experienced the recent problems is John Gereau, an editor with Denton Publications who also writes about the outdoors. The publications Gereau oversees are distributed in the Adirondacks and Vermont.

“I don’t think it’s as big as issue here in Region 5,” Gereau said. “If I call (spokesman) Dave Winchell today and say I want to talk to Rich Preall, within a half an hour Rich Preall is calling me back. So I really haven’t experienced it as much up this way.”

Gereau did say that it’s easier to contact staff at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department since he is able to call them directly.

“You call over there, and a biologist will pick up the phone and talk to you,” Gereau said.

Martens policy?

While Martens has taken credit for the DEC press directive, editorials around the state have criticized the Cuomo administration as a whole for its lack of transparency and restrictive press policy. Many writers didn’t believe Martens was the one behind limiting the flow of information.

“From my view up here in the cheap seats, from everything I’ve heard about Joe Martens, he’s not that kind of micro-manager,” Piatt said. “He’s not the kind of person that would limit staff’s ability to function and do their job. He’s kind of what I would call, and I have always perceived to be, a players’ coach, so to speak.”

The Cuomo administration’s press policies came into the spotlight after a Feb. 20 article by Enterprise reporter Chris Knight detailed how 29-year state Department of Transportation engineer Mike Fayette was forced to resign for speaking to him. In the interview, Fayette had heaped praise on his department for its response to Tropical Storm Irene, but he hadn’t gotten approval from his agency to speak to Knight.

In determining the penalty against him, DOT officials wrote that Fayette’s past disciplinary history was taken into account. They cited a prior case against him, dating to March 2011, when he was charged with misuse of the Internet, email, a department vehicle and Blackberry, theft of service and falsification of timesheets, much of it stemming from a relationship he had with another DOT employee. He said it’s the only other time in his DOT career that he’s been disciplined.

However, that case had been resolved without Fayette losing his job. It was speaking to the Enterprise that pushed things over the edge.

The Fayette story went on to be reported by the Associated Press, New York Times, Albany Times Union and media outlets around the state. Editorials followed the coverage, blasting the DOT and Cuomo administration for their handling of the situation and for their restrictive press policy.

The Times Union has continued to follow up on the transparency issue at state agencies, noting in an article earlier this week that “press releases must be reviewed before they are issued, and in some cases agency spokespeople cannot return or acknowledge inquiries without approval. The result, these sources say, has been a more restricted flow of information about state operations.”

But Martens maintains that the DEC’s press policy is his and in place in part because his staff is smaller than it has been in years, and that his employees are overworked. The policy helps shield workers who can sometimes be too busy with other tasks to deal with the press, he said.

The Enterprise did verify that the DEC’s staff numbers are down. A memo released near the end of DEC Commissioner’s Pete Grannis term in October 2010 stated that there were 3,775 on staff at DEC in April 2008. Now there are about 3,000.

“They have a lot of work on their shoulders, a lot more than they have had historically because there are a lot fewer of them,” Martens said. “I realize and recognize the complaint that it looks like we’re making it more complicated. We’re wasting more time, but that’s really the effort here to try to manage people’s time.

“I also put a premium on making sure that everything is accurate and has been signed off by supervisors and people that kind of have the definitive word on questions that get asked. And I’ll jump right to my conclusion to this, which is, I take the criticisms to heart that it’s difficult for reporters to get to staff, and we’re going to do our best to make sure that people have access to staff directly when they need it.”

Plattsburgh Press-Republican and Glens Falls Chronicle outdoors columnist Dan Ladd said he has noticed problems since the Cuomo administration took over. He said he understands the need for DEC to control information on hot topics such as hydrofracturing for natural gas and state land deals, but not those related to hunting and fishing.

“I don’t even understand the control,” Ladd said. “What’s the big deal about me asking (DEC wildlife biologist) Ed (Reed) about how the deer are doing in the winter time or asking (DEC fisheries biologist) Bill Schoch how those trout were coming out of the hatchery?”

Ladd also said it’s a concern that all the information coming out of DEC is so streamlined. Many writers believe that relying on information from press releases and short answers from the central office in Albany means that their articles and columns will lack local color and the local perspective that DEC biologists and other staff members offer.

“I’m not saying it’s the incorrect information or even that it’s bland, it’s (just all the) the same thing,” Ladd said. “At a small hometown newspaper we’re trying to parlay information that our small hometown people want and need. That’s what makes that type of media stand out. You don’t want (readers) to go to the New York Times; you want them to pick up the Daily Enterprise. That’s why they pick it up, for the (local) information. If we can’t get it, then we’re not doing our employers any justice and not doing our readers any justice.”