State government has become less transparent

This is Sunshine Week, sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It’s an annual time for the nation to talk about open government, and this time around, when we look out the window in New York, we see dark clouds blocking the sun.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done much good for the state, but his administration has also shown itself to be controlling, hierarchical and secretive. He promised to make Albany more transparent, but he has led it in the opposite direction. Not only has campaign finance reform not happened, but the governor’s re-election war chest is shrouded in mystery. Not only are big decisions still made by “three men in a room,” but recently the governor used “emergency” measures to ram through the SAFE Act for gun control, enacting huge changes on a lightning-rod topic without proper public airing. No matter what you think about the law itself, the process was not open, and the blowback upstate is a natural reaction to that.

Furthermore, this administration has been zealous in silencing state workers and only letting official mouthpieces speak publicly. That’s scary and unnecessary.

It also is prone to backfiring.

You may remember the case of Mike Fayette, the Department of Transportation engineer from Essex County who was forced to resign because he let an Enterprise reporter interview him about how well his department responded to Tropical Storm Irene.

Well, the Department of Environmental Conservation also requires every press contact to be routed through a central clearing house in Albany, no matter how small or uncontroversial the topic. Even professional state spokespeople in places like Ray Brook have to clear every inquiry and press release with the capital.

Of course, such a policy forces uniformity and lockstep, squelching staff opinions that might dissent from the official line.

It’s also expensive to hire all those extra public-relations people.

It also doesn’t work very well. Albany spokespeople often respond slowly, if at all. When they do, they don’t know the answers to detailed local questions from far afield, and they have to ask the same staff members the reporter was trying to contact to begin with. The answers they provide are often limited to the point of being unhelpful, and they do poorly with follow-up questions. This gets in the way of a reporter’s effort to understand more fully the matter he or she is asking about.

This offsets much of the good New York state government is trying to achieve. For instance, Gov. Cuomo and his team are pushing to promote upstate tourism, particularly in the Adirondacks, but as Enterprise Outdoors Writer Mike Lynch reported Saturday, these policies hurt fish and game writers, whose work does much for tourism.

A good example is Bill Hilts, an outdoor columnist who works for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation. One way he promotes his region is by writing about the fishing in Lake Ontario, and since DEC fisheries biologists are local experts in that field, he has been interviewing them regularly for more than 30 years and sharing their knowledge in promotional publications like the Lake Ontario Outdoors magazine.

Now DEC forces him to call Albany to ask how the fishing is in the Niagara region – which is ludicrous. What’s more, they didn’t get back to him in time, he blew his deadline, and the latest issue lacks a fishing report.

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens says he, not the governor’s office, enacted this policy, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of him since every other state agency has moved in the same direction.

He said he wants to know everything that goes in the DEC, which has 3,000 workers. That’s micromanagement to an extreme.

He said he gave the directive to ensure accuracy and to shield DEC’s reduced staff from distraction. Both of those reasons are ridiculous.

Regarding distraction, state workers are by no means being bombarded with inquiries from the press corps, which is pretty small outside of New York City and Albany. Mr. Martens gave no example of such distraction, and we believe he would be hard pressed to come up with one, much less enough to show it’s a serious state problem. Even if it is, these workers wouldn’t have to talk to the press if they were too busy. That’s certainly no reason to ban their communication even when it’s feasible and sensible.

Regarding accuracy, we echo something Brian Mann wrote last week in the North Country Public Radio news blog: In our many years of journalism up here, we cannot think of an instance in which a state employee gave us wrong information about his or her field of expertise. Even if such a thing happened and we forgot it, it was not enough to constitute a problem.

We can think of many, many times when we got bad information – flat-out wrong, incomplete or misrepresentative – from official spokespeople. Furthermore, that information was sometimes spiced with agendas: political, self-protective or promotional.

On the other hand, when you talk to one of the state’s many experts, he or she generally tells it to you straight, without a political agenda. They’re just doing their jobs.

That straight story is what the public needs more of. Or even a long and winding story, as long as it’s real.

That brings us to one more point, and we’ll make it with an anecdote:

March 2001 was extremely snowy, and municipal road crews had trouble keeping up with the plowing. After a blizzard dropped 2 feet, the Saranac Lake Department of Public Works decided to save time and fuel by dumping snow into the Saranac River instead of driving each load to the village’s snow yard.

Might this be bad for the river’s ecosystem? That was the question Enterprise reporter (now editor) Peter Crowley asked all three water quality experts at the DEC Region 5 headquarters. Back then there was no press officer in Ray Brook (one followed shortly afterward), and staff could speak freely.

All three agreed it would be better if the village didn’t dump snow in the river. It had been plowed up from roads and parking lots, so it contained sand, which fills in fish’s spawning holes. The snow also had salt, which can affect wildlife; so can the thermal difference of adding freezing snow to the warmer river. How much harm would these things do? That was another place all three water quality experts agreed: There was no way to tell.

They disagreed, however, on what to do about it. Two favored ticketing the village, but the third said it wasn’t worth the effort and wouldn’t hold up in court.

Again, each of these guys was an expert, with intelligence, education and decades of experience. Experts don’t always agree – and why should they? DEC higher-ups probably hated to see their guys contradicting each other in the paper, but that was the truth of the matter, the fuller reality. Through their plural voices, Enterprise readers learned about the complexity of issues like this.

Now the state is trying hard to speak with one voice, but that voice is less informative, less useful, less thorough and less reliable than the multiple voices of the past were.

Besides, why would any democracy-loving citizen want a government of thousands of workers who are spoken for with one voice? It sounds too much like George Orwell’s “1984.”

By consolidating communications in Albany, Gov. Cuomo has built up something in the direction of “1984”‘s Ministry of Truth – a shameful thing in this land of the free. He should tear it down, relax his urge to control and, most importantly, respect state workers’ credibility. That way he can restore his own, and that of his department heads.

But will he? Any time a government leader puts a dam in the river of public information, it’s a power play. The dam gives advantage to its owner and restricts the flow to those below. Will Gov. Cuomo willingly demolish dams that increase his power?

If he doesn’t, we take solace in our belief that these dams, so far, seem to be clumsy efforts, not strong enough to withstand the current. We can only hope the dams are never reinforced and therefore crumble quickly on their own.