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Ministry of Truth reigns in Albany

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 - Updated: 4:31 PM

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.

Mike Fayette, a Department of Transportation engineer from Essex County, was forced to resign because he let a reporter interview him about how well his department responded to Tropical Storm Irene.

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.

It's 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 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 Corp. 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.

We echo something Brian Mann wrote in the North Country Public Radio news blog: In our many years of journalism, 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.

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.

-- The Adirondack Daily Enterprise

     

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