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Other threats when fighting COVID-19: secrecy, budgetary opportunism

Rod Watson

When New York State’s "big ugly" meets a genuine health threat – during Sunshine Week, no less – what are the odds that government transparency won’t be among the first casualties?

It would seem obvious that this is a period when leveling with citizens to foster faith in government is essential to generating the required communal response. That means resisting what seems to be an occupational hazard of government work: Officials’ tendency to think that they know what information the public needs and that they should parcel out as little of it as possible.

Unfortunately, county leaders just couldn’t resist.

But good-government groups also see another threat as state officials meet this week to craft a budget that responds to both the novel coronavirus and more ordinary governmental obligations: The urge to piggy-back on the crisis to cram through unrelated measures with virtually no debate or public feedback.

So far, Albany’s public response to the health crisis has been stellar. In keeping with the spirit of Sunshine Week – the seven days each March devoted to emphasizing the need for open government and public accountability, not secrecy – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been forthright in updating the public about the numbers and locations of new cases during his daily media briefings.

That kind of matter-of-fact honesty has undoubtedly helped stem some of the paranoia that has resulted in runs on everything from toilet paper to guns and ammunition, as if this were a hurricane or other natural disaster in which supply chains would be disrupted.

Erie County officials, unfortunately, have not always been so forthcoming.

Early on, County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein wouldn’t even say how many local residents were being monitored for the virus, contending that releasing even general numbers would reveal "personally identifiable" information and therefore would be illegal.

That was absurd on its face, and the county eventually changed its tune – but only after Cuomo was already giving Erie County residents the information they craved. Even as recently as this past weekend, word of the first three confirmed cases in Erie County came from the governor’s office before county officials released it.

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That is hardly the way to generate public confidence and calm fears. Instead, it lets imaginations run wild about how bad things really are.

"I think you can provide statistical information without violating anyone’s privacy," said Paul Wolf, president of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government.

The county seems to have realized that in recent days, improving its information-sharing and even concluding it needs the public’s help via self-monitoring for anyone who might have been exposed to confirmed cases – and that the only way to accomplish that is by releasing information about those cases.

But as things get worse – as they no doubt will – and other aspects of the crisis demand similar transparency, county officials should not revert to their old ways. Poloncarz has done of good job of taking steps to try to stem the spread of the virus; there’s no need to take a back seat to the governor by simultaneously stemming the flow of information.

But while Cuomo has led in keeping the public in the loop, Albany watchers see another danger lurking in the health crisis.

A coalition made up of Common Cause New York, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters of New York State, NYPIRG and Reinvent Albany is calling on state leaders not to use the budget due April 1 and focused in good part on dealing with the crisis as an excuse to "cram through unrelated policy issues," resulting in the hodge-podge type of budget that decades ago was dubbed the "big ugly."

John Kaehny, Reinvent Albany executive director, pointed to the Legislature’s action two weeks ago – as part of a $40 million coronavirus funding bill – giving the governor "unprecedented" powers to suspend laws and take other emergency steps.

"Needless to say, that got our attention," said Kaehny, adding that the groups were especially concerned about the way the bill was passed in a rush with no consultation with civil liberties groups.

Given Albany’s "three men/women in a room" culture, that is how things are done even in the best of times – and this is hardly the best of times.

That is all the more reason for more – not less – transparency as Albany deals with both the virus and regular business, such as possibly amending the controversial bail reform law.

All of it requires being straight, and open, with the public.

"If people don’t believe the government, they’re not going to do what the government says," Kaehny noted.

And that belief in government is cultivated by treating constituents with respect and believing they deserve and can handle the truth because they are adults with functioning  brains – even if their voting decisions don’t always indicate it.

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