This last Friday, Mark Streb, an aide of Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited the Warren County Board of Supervisors to present a proclamation honoring Warren County on the 200th anniversary of its founding.
Streb stood up to the microphone and read the bicentennial proclamation. Minutes later, a Denton editor approached him, asking whether he had chatted with Cuomo before the trip to Queensbury, whether the governor had any personal message, and when the aide last saw the governor.
Streb declined to answer any of the questions, although they were innocuous — and even though the governor would only gain good publicity from forthright answers.
The aide’s response was not only frustrating, but it indicated a troubling trend in the Cuomo administration that deserves our attention.
This incident is the latest in a series of situations demonstrating that Cuomo seeks total control information that reaches the public — and that government employees are fearful of their political bosses.
Since the early years of the Pataki administration, government employees have been instructed to re-route press inquiries to departmental media representatives who concoct answers.
Skilled reporters, however, don’t want second- or third-hand information contrived by public relations employees whose chief objective is to make their bosses look good. Responsible reporters, adhering to a principle of informing the public, seek facts from sources with first-hand knowledge of a situation or topic.
Under previous administrations — of George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson — state officials have looked the other way when government employees have talked with the press.
Not so with the Cuomo cadre.
State Department of Transportation engineer Mike Fayette, who was charged with overseeing state roads and infrastructure in Essex County, talked to a reporter last autumn about the department’s response to Hurricane Irene.
It was reportedly innocuous, complimentary remarks made to reporter Mike Lynch of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
Nevertheless, Fayette was served with a disciplinary notice because DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald had wanted to make the comment herself. Fayette was notified he was fired from his post. Then when he protested the state’s action, he was accused of insubordination, misconduct and incompetence.
Fayette later retired rather than fight the charges, ending early a 30-year dedicated career.
The state’s actions against Fayette were not only reprehensible, but they demonstrate a substantial abuse of power on behalf of our state’s executive branch.
Yet the Fayette case is only the tip of the iceberg concerning Cuomo’s throttlehold on information to which the public should have access.
Not only are government employees not talking because they fear for their jobs, but the state government spokespeople — who have less knowledge and expertise than their on-the-job peers — have been routinely ignoring or procrastinating on answering media inquiries.
When these spokespeople do return calls, they aren’t fully informed on the situation at hand, they don’t fully answer the questions asked, or they rely on a lot of “spin” rather than facts.
We at Denton Publications have experienced the above problems, and reporters across the state have also.
Another example of Cuomo excluding the public inappropriately from governmental processes was how he invoked a “Message of Necessity” to rush the SAFE Act gun control bill through the state Legislature without allowing our elected representatives nor the public appropriate time to consider the measures.
Our government should be both responsive and responsible to the people. Citizens should be armed with accurate information so they can hold government leaders accountable for their actions.
To this end, Governor Cuomo should follow the example of his father, Mario Cuomo — who when in power, had no fears about public access to information.
It’s time for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to follow in the footsteps of his father and loosen his grip on the flow of information.
We at Denton Publications believe that government should work for us and be open and forthright with the facts. Information about government operations and activities should not be restricted merely to a laundered version of the facts — or no information at all.
We believe those in power should allow, with minimum restrictions, government employees to communicate freely with the media. It’s a hallmark of democracy.