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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Misdirection, Albany-Style

When politicians find themselves in a jam, they will try to get the public to focus on a different issue.  In politico parlance, that’s called “misdirection”: getting the public to focus their outrage on something else.  Politicians who command the bully pulpit, like a governor, have the greatest power to misdirect public attention.

Governor Cuomo has recently engaged in a very successful effort to misdirect the public.

The governor initially got himself into the “soup” with this policy of requiring the elimination of all state agencies’ emails after 90 days. 

At first, the governor’s office argued that the policy was simply due to technological limitations.  When faced with the fact that the federal government – which has far more emails than New York – now has a seven year retention email policy, the justification changed.

The governor’s office then said that the policy is something that it inherited.  But that turned out to be untrue as well.   According to internal memoranda, the Administration was describing the policy as something that has been adopted in 2013.  For example, in a Department of State memo the agency stated that the “90-day email retention policy was adopted by the State in June 2013.”

Failing to justify the indefensible, the governor then turned to “misdirection.”  In order to misdirect the nonstop criticism of his email deletion policy, the governor proposed a “summit” at which discussions with other statewide officials and the Legislature to establish a one email policy for the entire government.

In Albany, all too often the uses of “summits” are substitutes for action and hopes that the pressure to act will dissipate.  All observers knew this, but the governor continued to push his “summit” idea and the subject began to change.

Last week, the governor’s office publicly proposed a date for this summit, which was promptly rejected by the Legislature.  The leadership of both houses of the legislature state that they do not have automatic email deletion policies.

Unfortunately, at this point, the public discussion has become focused on the summit, not the governor’s unilateral email deletion policy.

And it is the governor that can fix it.  After all, it is the governor who controls the overwhelming majority of New York’s vast government.  It is the governor who could lead by example by issuing an executive order reversing the 90 day email deletion policy and instead follow the lead of the federal government, which requires archiving of emails for seven (7) years.

It turns out that in terms of statecraft, the governor’s misdirection worked.  In terms of the public’s interest, the policy fails.

For months now, the governor’s office has systematically scrubbed clean millions of state government’s emails.  Whatever possible embarrassments those emails could have generated have been eliminated.  The governor’s skill in changing the subject benefited him politically, but at a terrible cost – the public’s right to know.

Elected officials are supposed to be public servants, accountable to the public that they are sworn to serve.  Government information, collected with taxpayer dollars, is supposed to be open and available to the public as a way to keep them informed as well as to hold public officials accountable.

In fact, that argument was advanced by none other than then-candidate Andrew Cuomo.  In his campaign book, “Clean Up Albany,” then-candidate Andrew Cuomo pledged “to make the State government the most transparent and accountable in history.”  Sadly, the policy reality has not met the campaign rhetoric.

“Misdirection” worked and New York is worse off as a result. 

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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