Hugh Reynolds: Toward transparency

The columnist Reynolds.

The columnist Reynolds.

I don’t make it a practice of commenting on fellow columnists, but I want to commend Alan Chartock, the Freeman’s long-time state government columnist, for re-running his predictions for 2015 a few weeks ago. Given the dearth of crystal balls in our trade, that took guts.

Chartock, a retired political science and journalism professor at both SUNYs New Paltz and Albany and public radio station manager, wears many hats. His glory days were when he had, to the envy of colleagues, direct access to Mario Cuomo, one of the more brilliantly talkative governors in modern times. His “Me and Mario” program on WAMC was must-listen for insights into government and witty exchanges between the host and his subject.

Given Cuomo’s penchant for grilling interviewers, it was often difficult to discern which was which. The bromance of political expedience came a cropper when Chartock wrote some unpleasant though truthful items about Andrew Cuomo’s aborted run for governor in 2002.

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I’m not about to pound the old professor, whose predictions for last year were by and large predictable.

It’s what Chartock didn’t predict that caught my eye. Writing sometime in the last two weeks of 2014, Chartock inched out on a limb by predicting an unnamed state senator would be indicted, convicted and serve several years in jail in 2015. Easy call there. Senator Tom Libous of Binghamton was already in the crosshairs of federal prosecutor Preet Bharara.

Only days after Chartock’s predications hit the papers, now-former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was indicted on corruption charges, That was swiftly followed by similar accusations against now-former Senate majority leader Dean Skelos. By year’s end, both had been separately convicted on all charges in federal court.

And nobody outside the immediate players, not the talking heads, the radio gabbers, bloggers, capital columnists, nor fellow legislators, had a clue?

Which brings me to the subject of government transparency.

We hear a lot about it these days. Everybody says they’re for it. The public wants to know what’s going on with their tax dollars, even though most pay little attention. The media is constantly sniffing around. Good-government groups are always in the forefront of calls for open government. Government leaders are forever telling us how they value and promote transparency.

And yet two crooks like Silver and Skelos can bribe and barter, threaten and cajole, pocket millions for themselves and relatives for years and nobody knows nothin’?

The fact is transparency in government is an oxymoron. Government is politics. And politics is a conspiracy between warring factions. The golden rule of politics is he who has the gold rules. But information is the gold.

Not to question anybody’s veracity, but a Winston Churchill World War II quote comes to mind, to wit: “In time of war, when truth is so precious, it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” And, of course, absolute secrecy.

Leaders may start out with the intent of providing more transparency but they soon come to realize that giving out information — unless carefully presented to make them look good — is akin to giving away the store. Because the same people who battled them for the position they hold — the other party — will be in opposition when their terms are up.

The information we do get from government, typically via press release, is usually of conclusions reached, of plans made. How they got there, the internal decision-making process, the pros and cons, who was consulted, or not, ideas discussed and rejected, is rarely part of the discussion. Some would say government has to operate that way. To put forth half-baked proposals for public consumption would only invite dissention and doubt. Or it could promote a more vigorous public debate.

Controlling the information

I’ve watched the process of transparency dissipate over many administrations. The first step is to order all department heads to clear any public pronouncements with the elected leader. Media, or the general public for that matter, will not be allowed direct access to those departments. Understandably, Dear Leader doesn’t want to read news of his or her administration before hearing about it first hand.

My first exposure to this situation came early-on. As City Hall reporter, I had rung up a department head for an update on something routine, the city’s annual street-paving program. He gave me a list of streets and we printed it. The next day the department head was called to the mayor’s carpet and admonished for “issuing press releases.”

He asked me a question and I answered it, the department head said. I’ll make those announcements, responded the mayor. Sometimes the boss gets back to media, sometimes he doesn’t. The rule is that he controls the information.

I don’t think so-called freedom of information laws, all the rage in post-Watergate years but as toothless as a hockey player, have made much difference. Public officials accused of violations of such statutes suffer but mild embarrassment from a public which really doesn’t appreciate that what they don’t know can hurt them. See Silver and Skelos.

Media will continue to report on government activities, with mixed results. More likely, what inside information that does seep out will come from disgruntled employees, opposition forces or hard-nosed journalists on those rare occasions when they’re given the time and resources to pursue real investigative reporting.

My prediction is that even with well-intended calls for transparency this situation will not improve. I dare say the current crop of public servants, having learned their trade from secretive predecessors, is even better at hiding information. Pity the public.

Hail to the chief

Incoming Ulster County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk will deliver his state-of-the-county address later this winter, but his brief remarks after being sworn in last week as Ulster’s 15th legislative leader gave some clues as to his agenda.

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“A united legislature,” Ronk said former chairman Gerry Benjamin, his political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, once told him, “can pretty much do what it wants.” Ronk hastened to add that he did not mean that under his leadership the legislature would necessarily be “anti-executive.” But the message could not have been lost on the executive.

Professor Benjamin is a unique combination of ivory-tower academic and grassroots politician, a man given to subtle distinctions. By “united legislature,” he meant a body with common purpose and direction, something difficult to achieve in a 23-member legislature.