DEC chief: Communications control needs work

NEWCOMB – Joe Martens, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said Sunday he realizes his agency’s communications consolidation isn’t working as well as planned.

Therefore, he said, he’s trying to make it easier for reporters to talk to DEC employees, especially when they’re just asking for description from the field rather than department policy.

“We’ve heard the complaints – from lots of outdoor writers in particular – and I’m going to do my best to improve that situation,” Martens told the Enterprise at Camp Santanoni in Newcomb, where for the second year in a row he participated in a ski-in open house at the restored Adirondack great camp, which has property reaching 5 miles deep in the state Forest Preserve.

“I’m simply responding to the complaint because I think it’s legitimate: that it takes too long, you (reporters) haven’t been able to meet deadlines, you’d like more access to staff as you have had historically,” Martens continued.

DEC staff in the Adirondacks used to be free to share their knowledge and perspectives on the record with reporters, except on the most sensitive matters, until Gov. George Pataki’s second term; in 2001, DEC Region 5 started routing most media questions through its citizen participation specialist. In recent months, communication has been consolidated further; Martens has ordered that all media inquiries, from local fishing conditions to ranger rescues, must be routed through a central office in Albany, which has struggled to keep up with all the questions. Outdoor writers, who have long been used to conversing freely about hunting and fishing with DEC experts, have been especially frustrated.

Other state departments have done the same kind of thing since Andrew Cuomo has been governor. In the fall, the Department of Transportation tried to fire a 30-year veteran engineer because he spoke to a reporter – even though, in the interview, he glowingly praised his department for its quick response to Tropical Storm Irene. He took early retirement instead, and then told the story to the Enterprise. A top aide to the governor fired back by reading embarrassing parts of the man’s disciplinary record live on an Albany radio show.

Martens has said the DEC’s new communications control was his call, not Cuomo’s, but did the governor suggest such a move? Martens didn’t answer directly.

“We communicate frequently with the governor’s office,” Martens answered Sunday. “There’s no secret about that.”

The reasons Martens has given for the practice are to ensure accuracy and, because the DEC has many fewer employees than even a few years ago, to keep them on task and not distracted. But could accuracy be lost when information is being passed like a game of telephone through Albany instead of directly with the person? And does this practice shield employees from distraction since they’re being asked questions anyway, whether it’s by a reporter or a department spokesperson from Albany? Could this practice actually get in the way of Martens’ two stated concerns?

“It shouldn’t, in my mind,” Martens said. “What I’ve heard is that it has, and we’re going to try to improve that. We’re going to try to make people more accessible.

“I thought it made sense to have the Albany office be the traffic cop, if you will, to get the requests, forward them on to staff, let them know when the deadlines are, and our press office could regulate the flow of that, hopefully have it matched up with the reporters’ concerns. It hasn’t worked ideally, so we’re going to try to put people in touch more directly with staff.

“I can’t pull staff away from important projects that they have deadlines on that are non-press related. And everybody has higher workloads at DEC, so I had the concern coming in because all I kept hearing from staff was, ‘We’re doing three times as much as we used to, and we need more help.’ And all I was able to say was, ‘We’re not going to get more help. I don’t expect staff increases, so we’re going to try to regulate who gets what.’

“We’ve always had a regional staff and a central office staff. The central office makes policy, so we want to be sure that what the regions are saying is consistent with that policy. It’s a big organization, so it’s a way for us to make sure that the answers we’re giving to press are consistent with policies that we are implementing out of the central office.

“All the stuff where you’re just looking for information, I want to get you to the person who can give it to you, as quickly as we possibly can.”

(Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that, while in 2001 DEC Region 5 started routing most media questions through its citizen participation specialist, the position had existed for several years before then. Dave Winchell, who holds the job now, says most of his job is taken up with other duties related to public involvement and that media relations take up about a quarter to a third of his time.)