Cuomo's Transparency Efforts Scrutinized

5:45 PM, Sep 22, 2013   |    comments
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By Jon Campbell, Gannett Albany Bureau

ALBANY -- Of all of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign promises, laid out in a series of books during his time on the trail in 2010, one in particular has become a frequent tool in his critics' arsenal.

"As Governor, Andrew Cuomo will create 'Open NY' to make the state government the most transparent and accountable in history," the Cuomo campaign wrote in its "Clean Up Albany" book.

Cuomo's promise is often pointed to during instances of alleged secrecy since taking office in 2011, such as a lawsuit filed this month that seeks to force the disclosure of documents related to the state's lengthy, ongoing review of shale-gas drilling.

When taken as a whole, Cuomo's record of transparency has garnered mixed reviews from advocacy groups and open-government advocates who have kept an eye on the Capitol's hallways through administrations past and present. That record will gain more scrutiny next year when Cuomo seeks re-election to a second term.

"There have been some significant, groundbreaking transparency efforts that they should be applauded for," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a New York City good-government group. "That being said, there are still areas for improvement in terms of making even more information publicly available."

Government transparency in the Cuomo administration again attracted headlines after a Finger Lakes advocacy group sued the state Department of Health.

The suit, filed Sept. 13 by the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, seeks to force the disclosure of documents related to hydraulic fracturing that are being reviewed by Health Commissioner Nirav Shah, a Cuomo appointee. Shah's review, when completed, will guide whether large-scale hydrofracking proceeds in New York.

The group was denied the documents under the state Freedom of Information Law, with the Department of Health claiming they were exempt from disclosure because they contained opinions and non-final determinations.

Travis Proulx, a spokesman for Environmental Advocates of New York, charged that the Cuomo administration has made it more difficult for state agencies to release information under FOIL by requiring them to check in with the Executive Chamber first. Environmental Advocates had also unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the documents at the center of the lawsuit.

"I know the administration, from personal experience, has changed the way that the FOIL process is done," said Proulx, who was previously a spokesman for the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. "There's a lot more hoops and ladders that agency staff have to go through in order to get the administration, the executive chamber, to actually sign off."

In early July, Gannett's Albany Bureau filed FOIL requests with four major agencies or authorities that fall within the Cuomo administration umbrella, as well as two that don't: the state Attorney General's Office and the Office of the State Comptroller.

The requests sought a record of all FOIL requests filed with each agency since 2011, along with when they were received and if and when they were fulfilled.

The four Cuomo administration entities -- the Office of General Services, Thruway Authority, Department of Health and Empire State Development Corp. -- had extended their deadlines for complying with the requests and had not submitted any information by mid-September.

The Attorney General's Office and the Comptroller's Office responded in a month.

Cuomo's office defended its FOIL review.

"The administration as a whole strives to complete Freedom of Information Law requests as quickly as possible, taking into account the large number that are received and the fact that some are voluminous and require a thorough legal review process," said George Stiefel, FOIL counsel to the governor, in a statement.

Major policy and budgetary decisions that guide the state are still often made behind closed doors, with Cuomo and legislative leaders often holed up in the governor's office ahead of New York's budget deadline while aides and reporters wait outside.

Cuomo has defended the process, saying that New Yorkers are more interested in results rather than political paralysis.

"I understand you can always do it better. And our goal is a perfect process and we are working very hard to make it perfect," Cuomo said after a budget presentation in Buffalo in April 2012. "But while it's a worthy goal, it's often unattainable."

Dadey and other good-government advocates said Cuomo's office has taken steps that perhaps they haven't received enough credit for.

Some of those steps were outlined in his campaign books.

Earlier this year, Cuomo launched "Open Data NY," a wide-ranging database of statistics, records and documents for all state agencies and authorities, as well as a number of counties and local governments.

He also revamped "Project Sunlight," a separate database that he first launched as state attorney general. The website contains records of meetings held by state officials and agency commissioners, as well as whom they met with and -- broadly -- what was discussed.

On Friday, Cuomo announced the hire of three data experts to expand the availability of information on Open NY.

"New York state has been on the forefront of using technology and innovation to open the doors of government," Cuomo said in a statement.

Dadey also pointed to newly re-done disclosure forms that all statewide elected officials and members of the Legislature now have to fill out each year. The forms require more detailed information about lawmakers' outside income to be disclosed, and are posted online by the state ethics board after they're completed by legislators.

Those forms, along with a requirement requiring lobbying groups to disclose their major donors and business relationships, were created as part of a law passed in 2011, Cuomo's first year in office.

Robert Freeman, the longtime head of the state Department of State's Committee on Open Government, said the Cuomo administration has often sought his assistance regarding compliance issues with FOIL and other open-government laws. Freeman was asked to give a presentation to state agencies shortly after Cuomo took office, which he said was a first since he first took over his position in 1976.

Freeman, who has remained in his position through six gubernatorial administrations, said it's "unfair" to compare one to another when it comes to complying with FOIL but said agencies have received more requests over time as the law has "become an industry."

Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, said she believes the Cuomo administration has been "fairly opaque." But previous governors have had their troubles, she said, pointing to former Gov. George Pataki, whose office once released a list of lengthy list of donors alphabetized by first name.

Kennedy has previously been critical of Cuomo's administration for its policies related to state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Conservation. A state Department of Transportation employee was forced to resign last year after he spoke to the press without permission, a decision that was knocked by editorial boards and transparency advocates.

"I think once people get into power, they think, 'Well, this is my information. I'm not going to give it to you,'" Kennedy said. "I wouldn't say from a strictly FOIL response point of view that this administration is that much worse than any other, but I do think that they're pretty secretive."

JCAMPBELL1@gannett.com

Twitter.com/JonCampbellGAN

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