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Troubling trend

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A great deal of the public furor over passage of New York state’s gun control law in January stems from the manner in which it was rammed through the Legislature with virtually no public input or debate. At the same time, opt-out provisions of the controversial gun law bar release of information on gun permit holders. Both are part of a disturbing trend restricting public access to information in New York state.

The most recent example was the Cuomo administration’s misguided attempt to demote Michael Fayette, a DOT engineer in Essex County who praised the state’s response to the August 2011 Hurricane Irene in an interview last summer with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. You would think the administration and Mr. Fayette’s superiors in Albany would welcome the comments by the 30-year employee.

Instead, the Cuomo administration responded with disciplinary charges threatening a demotion and transfer for daring to speak to the media after he was told that the DOT commissioner wanted to do the interview herself. Mr. Fayette claimed he was not aware of that until after he spoke with a reporter, which he did because a departmental spokesperson had not responded to the newspaper’s requests for an interview. Rather than contest the charges, Mr. Fayette chose to retire.

But the Cuomo administration sent a chilling message to other state workers who might make the same mistake. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Director of State Operations Howard Glaser claimed the charges against Mr. Fayette resulted from a broader pattern of misconduct. Mr. Glaser trashed Mr. Fayette’s reputation on a radio show by recalling two-year-old disciplinary charges that had been resolved and had no connection to this incident.

The information was accurate and previously publicized by the media. However, it is unheard of for a public employer to openly comment on personnel matters. That is an excuse they routinely use to avoid comment.

No doubt other state workers got the message. Mr. Fayette’s case is indicative of a broader policy by the Cuomo administration to restrict public access to state departmental staffers at the regional or local offices.

David Figura, writing last month in the Syracuse Post-Standard, detailed difficulties outdoor writers have encountered with a “gag order” that requires Department of Environmental Conservation staff to obtain permission to talk to the media. Reporters have to submit written questions to departmental public relations staff, who prepare a response.

Other newspapers have reported encountering similar obstacles. The mid-level, regional managers, though, are public employees closer to the people than executive staff sitting in an Albany office.

Regional staff are more familiar and more knowledgeable about taxpayer-funded projects and matters of local concern, not some public relations officer who has to turn around and ask them for information before answering public inquiries. The restrictions on access seek to control the flow of information and to put the administration’s spin on it.

On other policy matters, the state’s NY SAFE Act now bars access to the names and address of pistol permit holders. The gun law allows them to keep their names secret for any one of several reasons, including the fear of harassment. The claim could justify limiting access to a host of other databases as is already being proposed.

Citing personal privacy, some state lawmakers have introduced legislation to shield the identities of those holding hunting, fishing and trapping permits from public view. Bill sponsors say the license data could be used for identity theft. So what’s next? Close off access to voter registration lists that contain personal information?

Add to the list the names of those receiving publicly funded pensions. A state appellate court has said the names of pension recipients can be kept secret. The court overruled a lower court that had favored the Empire Center for New York State Policy in asking for the data under a freedom of information request. The appellate court relied on a previous court’s ruling that allows the New York City Police Pension fund to withhold the names of pensioners.

Much of the information being restricted now can be useful in determining whether state laws and policies are being enforced. It can also expose fraud and abuses. Linking specific pensions to individuals exposed some of the most egregious abuses of the pension system, such as salary spiking and pension padding, that led to reforms. Now, the pensions will be mere numbers.

Much of the information being put off limits is essential to maintain an informed public and hold public officials accountable. The public has a right to know what its leaders are doing. The backsliding on access and open records puts at risk the transparency necessary to keep government answerable to the people.

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