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Sunshine Week: Editorials from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Thursday, March 6, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
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As requested, attached are a series of Rochester Democrat and Chronicle editorials from the past year touching on issues of governmental transparency.

Specific topics include:

* More openness in operations and oversight of the Monroe County IDA

* A call for transparency in the ongoing New York state study of hydrofracking

* The need for cameras to be allowed in courtrooms

* A rebuke of the White House's restrictive policy regarding photographers

* Failure of New York's governor and Legislature to conduct state business transparently

* A call to publicly release remaining documents related to the Attica Prison uprising (an effort that was kick-started when the Editorial Board pushed Gov. Cuomo on the issue when he met with the board).


Thank you and best regards,

Kevin Frisch

Digital Opinion Editor

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle


COMIDA must shore up trust

Monroe County's industrial development arm needs to be more regimented, open


An agency that wields decision-making power over millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies needs to instill public confidence. In key areas including transparency, the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency isn't making the grade.

As a Watchdog Report by staff writer Tom Tobin outlined Tuesday, COMIDA leaders are too quick to dismiss or discuss applications behind the scenes — contributing to understandable criticism that decisions are hashed out before being reviewed in public meetings.

That's an impression not helped by the fact that the seven-member board went all of last year without one "no" vote — not as a board, but from even a single member.

It's no wonder, then, that those most affected by the hefty tax abatements COMIDA routinely approves — school districts and municipalities whose tax bases take big hits — see the board's meetings as little more than perfunctory preludes to approval. For every dollar in net IDA tax exemptions awarded in 2011, according to the advocacy group Getting Our Money's Worth, schools lost 52 cents.

And for property owners themselves, whose tax dollars supplement private development that often exceeds tens of millions of dollars, such seeming disregard for public input adds insult to injury.

Too, the processing of requests and appeals for reconsideration should be handled more formally. COMIDA Executive Director Judith Seil says much of this interaction is done by her, either over the phone, in person, or via emails she does not keep. Her decision to weed out applicants without full board approval, or even knowledge, rightly raises a flag with the state's open government expert, who questioned whether such action, "removes the board from doing its job."

Perceptions count. COMIDA already operates under the perception that business interests applying for tax favors will face little opposition from business interests (largely) who make up the board. Frankly, letting the full board consider and dismiss some of the applicants now winnowed out behind the scenes could well dispel some of that suspicion.

And hashing out questions at monthly public meetings, rather than backstage, would likewise shed light on votes that — absent much discussion or any dissent — come off as preordained.

"I know how it looks," said COMIDA board chairwoman Theresa Mazzullo, "but people have a misperception about this." No. It's COMIDA that needs to adjust its vision — and, then, its way of doing business.


Let sun in on fracking study

Gov. Cuomo needs to prod his secretive health commissioner to provide updates


With New York's review of hydraulic fracturing well into its sixth year and the state environmental conservation chief saying any fracking permits are unlikely before spring 2015, an update on the review is in order. Someone — preferably Gov. Andrew Cuomo — ought to make that clear to state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah.

It is Shah, after all, in whose lap the study — and, perhaps, the future of hyrdrofracking in New York — now rests. He began a review of potential health effects of the underground natural gas-drilling method some 16 months ago. Where does the review stand? When will it be done? Who has Shah consulted with? What information is being investigated? On these and other matters related to the study Shah provides few details.

That's not only an insult to taxpayers, who are footing the bill for the ongoing study, but a sure way to dilute confidence in whatever conclusion is eventually reached. And with the gas industry promising thousands of jobs on one side, and environmental interests warning of health and pollution threats on the other, a reassuring process should be a must.

Transparency would go a long way to ensuring that.

But Shah, questioned in December about his study, said "The process needs to be transparent at the end, not during" — a startling misunderstanding of transparent government for a public servant.

The health commissioner's reticence has frustrated even lawmakers, in front of whom he testified this week at a budget hearing and, again, offered no specifics.

Cuomo, who could push his commissioner to provide at least some information, is taking a hands-off approach — the better to avoid having to make a decision on the controversial gas-drilling method, on which the public is split, before November's election. That may serve the governor's political purposes, but what of land owners with lease options, energy companies with investments made, municipalities that have passed local moratoriums?

President Obama held up natural gas as a "bridge fuel" during his State of the Union address last month and more than 60 percent of the nation's gas and oil is said to now come from fracking. Conversely, a chemical spill in West Virginia last month demonstrated the massive environmental risk posed by chemical activity — which plays a considerable role in the hydrofracking process.

With so much on the line, the state's health review must be balanced and thorough — and the process must be transparent.


Allow cameras in N.Y. courts

At least 33 states currently permit cameras in criminal and civil courtrooms


Remember the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the legal wrangling over ballots after the 2000 presidential election or the sometimes riveting testimony in the murder case of Casey Anthony? Most people do because they followed the legal proceedings from Florida on television.

Unfortunately, in New York, except in special circumstances, the public is still limited in what it can learn about legal proceedings in state courts because of an archaic law banning cameras in the courtroom. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who campaigned on a platform of more transparency in government, should make lifting the ban a priority in 2014.

With Cuomo certain to seek re-election next year, timing couldn't be better for New Yorkers to tell him they want to join citizens like those in states such as Florida and California, where broadcast and still cameras have become routine in courtrooms.

A change in New York's 60-year-old law barring courtroom cameras could, for example, shed more light on the complex criminal case involving Monroe County local development corporations.

There has been no solid evidence that as a result of cameras, justice in those states allowing cameras has been compromised. If anything, citizens in the at least 33 states where cameras are permitted have become better educated about the criminal justice system.

Such benefits were evident in New York during a decade-long experiment with courtroom cameras from 1987 to 1997. Unfortunately, the law authorizing the experiment was allowed to expire amid disputable concerns by a third of judges surveyed, who said that cameras posed a threat to judicial independence and distracted witnesses.

And get this: More than one third of the judges surveyed said TV cameras caused them to render rulings that they otherwise would not have issued. Now that's frightening, that a judge would feel intimidated enough to base a ruling on anything other than facts.

These judges and others who aren't persuaded that courtroom cameras are in the public's interest should take a cue from their boss, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. He argues that studies in New York have shown that cameras have no ill effects on courtroom proceedings. He points out, too, that steps can be taken to protect the identities of witnesses.

Gov. Cuomo, tell the Legislature to stop shielding courtrooms from public scrutiny. Let cameras inside on a routine basis and let New Yorkers experience real reality TV.


Remove White House lens cap

Obama administration policy restricting news photographers stifles free press


If President Barack Obama hopes to climb out of the public opinion hole created, in part, by an erroneous promise to Americans about their health insurance, he ought to direct his administration to act more forthrightly on another front: Public transparency. The White House must cease the practice of banning news photographers from documenting official presidential duties in favor of providing in-house photos.

All administrations have photographers on staff to exhaustively record the commander in chief, and Obama's is no different. What is different is the White House ensuring such images are the only pictorial record of many presidential activities.

Events of a fundamentally public nature — presidential meetings, for example, with Olympic athletes, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus or Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai — are deemed "private" and off-limits to photographers. But in all of these cases, White House images were almost immediately made available — acknowledgment that the events were indeed newsworthy.

The images often make their way onto news websites and into print. Such policy delves uncomfortably close to state-run political propaganda, and has no place in a White House whose leader has boasted of "the most transparent administration in history."

Thankfully, pushback is growing. Reporters such as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank have turned a spotlight on the issue (see column), and news-gathering organizations including USA Today have said, barring "very extraordinary circumstances," they will not use the "visual press releases," either in print or online.

In addition, a coalition of top news organizations, including Democrat and Chronicle parent company Gannett, has sent the White House a letter demanding a meeting to discuss ending the restrictions.

If the Obama administration believes replacing the work of news photographers (and videographers) with administration-blessed handouts is appropriate, such a meeting is long overdue. The administration's actions are nothing less than arbitrary and undue restraint of independent news-gathering.

"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing." So said President Obama in an executive memorandum on the subject, "Transparency and Open Government." Agreed, Mr. President. Now, walk the talk.


Politics aside, fix LDC mess

Monroe taxpayers deserve a credible investigation led by County Legislature


Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and majority Republicans in the County Legislature have allowed quite a mess on their watch under the guise of saving taxpayers money. They should have listened to minority Democrats' concerns years ago and they should listen to them now.

Specifically, Brooks and GOP county lawmakers should put an internal investigation related to the operations of the county's local development corporations into the hands of the County Legislature, and make public the findings of Dennis Vacco, an influential lawyer hired by Brooks.

Democrats are understandably screaming potential conflict of interest. They note that Brooks, who hired the former GOP state Attorney General to conduct the internal investigation at taxpayers' expense, currently has access to privileged information that includes her role in the LDC investigation.

One of the few comments Vacco has made about the investigation is that he found "irregularities" in the way that Navitech Services Corp. managed a major communications contract for the county. Remember, Brooks signed off on transferring the communications contract from Siemens Building Technologies to Navitech without a competitive bidding process.

Yes, she can legally do that, but why? After all, at the time Navitech was a startup company with no track record.

Democrats warned of potential problems then and, along with this page, proposed fixes such as more transparency and oversight. But the GOP-dominated County Legislature, as it has for years, turned a deaf ear. The way that GOP legislative leaders and their toe-the-line caucus members arrogantly operate, they do what they want, when they want, and to hell with what others think.

How ironic it is that in responding to the recent 25-count indictment related to the county's LDC operations, Brooks is proposing reforms that mirror those sought by Democrats when Navitech was hired more than five years ago. The reforms include authorizing the county's director of public safety to oversee the LDCs.

Now that Brooks is at least open to embracing Democrats' proposals as her own, she should persuade fellow Republicans in the legislature to find a way to support Democrats' reasonable plan for an open, legislative investigation of the county's relationships with LDCs.

County taxpayers care more about an honest fix than they do about partisan politics. Get to the bottom of the LDC mess and do it openly.


Open wider the doors to state business

Governor hasn't yet kept promise of transparency


As he prepares to seek re-election next year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo can point to a number of campaign promises kept: Passage of on-time budgets, approval of same-sex marriage and a revised tax code among them. What he cannot point to is his pledge to create "the most transparent and accountable (state government) in history." On that front, the governor and his administration have much work to do.

Justice delayed, it is said, is justice denied. The same holds true for public information. State agencies too often delay — repeatedly — filling requests for information. Gannett's Albany Bureau, for instance, sought documentation from four state entities more than two months ago. Still waiting. So is the Democrat and Chronicle, despite a Freedom of Information request filed back in February.

Add to such tactics the largely behind-closed-doors deal-making of Cuomo himself. Those on-time budgets? Negotiated in classic Albany three-men-in-a-room style, like other high-profile legislative achievements including pension reform, a redistricting deal and expansion of the state's DNA database. A much-touted amendment to legalize casino gambling in New York likewise received little public ventilation prior to approval, and the state's five-year-old-and-counting assessment of hydraulic fracturing has been shrouded in secrecy.

It has not been all shadows. Cuomo has made state records more accessible online, and a baby-step ethics law requires lawmakers to provide some detail on their outside earnings (though not much; an anti-corruption panel may subpoena lawmakers for more).

Even decades-old archives that could shed light on the Attica Prison uprising of 1971 remain tucked away, despite a gubernatorial promise to encourage their release. Cuomo must keep the heat on the attorney general for disclosure.

And while he's at it, the governor should also demand more transparency from his colleagues, his administration — and himself.


The Attica papers


Forty-two years after the deadliest prison uprising in American history, all of the facts about what happened still most likely remain in the state's locked files. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman needs to finally make good on his vow to unlock the truth — the whole truth.

The families of the 43 people killed, and New Yorkers, in general, are as thirsty for all the facts as they were in the above picture taken at the Capitol in Albany on Sept. 23, 1971, days after the uprising.

To Schneiderman's credit, last spring he vowed to ask a New York Supreme Court to release two of three volumes of a major report on the riot prepared by Supreme Court Justice Bernard Meyer and sealed in 1981. The missing volumes include grand jury testimony that was collected in an investigation launched to ensure there was no corruption involved in the initial probe by the state police.

But Schneiderman and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who prior to Schneiderman's commitment got the ball rolling by telling the Editorial Board last spring that he'd look into releasing the documents, must not stop with the Meyer report. There is a trove of records in the state's possession that should be made public. All of it is linked to the uprising, which resulted in the death of 10 hostages and 29 inmates when troopers stormed the prison.

For instance, there's believed to be at least 90 boxes of records from the McKay Commission, which conducted the initial investigation of the riot parallel to one led by the state attorney general's office. There are also grand jury and attorney general records that have been locked away for decades.

Suspicions about the state's culpability in the bloodbath have lingered long enough. Cuomo, who talked a lot about transparency during his 2008 campaign for governor, must rattle cages again as he did last spring to free the facts.

For years, survivors of the riot's victims have gathered at the prison to remember their loved ones as they did earlier this month. Each year, looks of uncertainty and anguish on their faces grow more intense. They've suffered long enough.

Information can ease their trauma. It can also provide guideposts that can help avert such a bloodbath from ever happening again. Cuomo and Schneiderman must see to it.


Albany must move to support openness

Legislative steps needed in session's waning weeks


As Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers steam toward the finish line of the current legislative session, there are several measures to ensure open discourse and government transparency that they need to put high on their to-do list.

The state Senate, for example, must move on a pair of bills that would shed sunshine on both public documents and public debate.

Both the Republican and the Independent Democratic conferences, which share power in the Senate, are ignoring an Assembly-passed bill that would limit frivolous lawsuits against those who speak out on issues during public debate. Such suits, often instituted by deep-pocketed interests, have been used to silence critics. Indeed, even the threat of costly legal action can have a dependably chilling effect.

The bill now languishing in the Senate would broaden protections under the state Civil Rights Law, and award legal fees to those found to be wrongfully sued.

A second bill would clarify that state retirees' pension information should be public. In a string of recent cases, courts have ruled against disclosure of publicly financed pensions to police and teachers, reversing previous policy.

An appeal to the state's highest court is pending, but legislators could clarify the issue by specifying the term "beneficiary" (the survivor of a retiree, whose identification is not public) as different from "retiree" (the pension recipient, whose information is public). The Assembly, again, has passed such legislation. The Senate has not. It should.

Meantime, Cuomo has united both opponents and supporters of the controversial gas-drilling process hydrofracking. Both sides — joined by health experts and state lawmakers — agree that the administration's ongoing health analysis of the practice has been far too secretive. They're right.

Both the study's credibility and Cuomo's claim to be a proponent of open government would be gilded by increased — and long overdue — transparency.

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