EDITORIAL: Hochul must uphold her commitment to transparency

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul listen to a speaker during a cabinet meeting in the Red Room at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, in Albany, N.Y.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul listen to a speaker during a cabinet meeting in the Red Room at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, in Albany, N.Y.

One of the casualties of the outgoing Cuomo administration was trust.

He betrayed the trust of his employees and staff through his sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation.

He betrayed the trust of COVID patients and their families by covering up death and illness data, and manipulating the information for his own benefit.

He betrayed the trust of the public for virtually his entire 11 years in office by operating in secret and withholding public documents on a regular basis, using delays and legal appeals to keep citizens in the dark about the government they support and pay for.

If our new governor, Kathy Hochul, hopes to restore that trust, she needs to keep the pledge she made to New Yorkers during her inaugural press conference last week that her “administration will be fully transparent.”

We’ll see.

Every public official who gets into office pledges transparency. Then, when faced with having to release information that might be embarrassing or cost them political or public capital, or when they’re forced to hold uncomfortable discussions in the open instead of behind closed doors, they suddenly look for ways to keep the documents or meeting contents out of citizens’ view.

They will ignore or deny Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests or perpetually put off releasing the information, hoping it will become irrelevant or no longer of interest. They won’t list certain meetings on their public schedules. They’ll refuse to answer questions from the press, even at events labeled “press conferences.” And they’ll use their authority and power to compel or intimidate others not to share information they don’t want disclosed.

The failure to provide the public with accurate figures on nursing home deaths related to the failed policy of returning COVID patients from hospitals to their nursing homes is just the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg with the Cuomo administration.

As a result of all this, the public has a very low level of trust in state government right now, and rightly so.

Hochul can take immediate steps that would go a long way toward restoring that trust.

But she might find what other politicians quickly learn: that promising to be transparent is a lot easier than actually being transparent.

Hochul had an opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to transparency at her press conference the other day by pledging to release all information relating to the nursing home casualties, and to honor every single FOIL request submitted by the Empire Center and the media seeking accurate data.

Instead, she hid behind the “I’m not governor yet” excuse, buying herself time to consider whether to honor the request. What’s to consider? Release the information and show how really committed you are to rebuilding the public’s trust.

That was a missed opportunity that we hope she’ll rectify immediately when she takes office.

Another way she can honor her pledge is to make it a policy that her administration will adhere to the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws, and will quickly and fully fulfill all legitimate requests for public information and access within the time frame specified in the law.

Reporters and citizens can wait for months or even years to have FOIL requests filled under the current state government, and often those requests are not filled to the requester’s satisfaction.

While she’s at it, Hochul should pledge to strengthen and expand FOIL and the Open Meetings Law to add teeth to the laws and give the public greater access to information, including information related to police disciplinary records that are now tangled up in court battles.

She should vow to post all her daily meetings on her website, and pledge to answer reporters’ questions at press conferences and other public events.

Cuomo would go months without talking to reporters, and often when he did, he only took questions from favored reporters outside the capitol press corps who didn’t challenge him

Being transparent means being available and answering questions from the media, even when you don’t want to.

Among the questions some reporters and state lawmakers have asked in the past few days is how much she knew about the nursing home situation and about the so-called “toxic” work environment in state government.

What communications did she have with Cuomo, his staff and department heads, if any, about these two crucial matters?

Assemblyman Ron Kim, a frequent Cuomo critic, last week called on Hochul to release records of all emails and phone calls to demonstrate what she did and didn’t know about the Cuomo workplace environment she has pledged not to perpetuate. That shouldn’t be a problem if she’s got nothing to hide, right?

Others, including Cam Macdonald of the Empire Center, have called on her to order the creation of an independent commission into the numerous Cuomo scandals.

That was before the Assembly announced Friday it wouldn’t pursue impeachment against Cuomo and would take a pass on its ongoing investigations.

The public deserves to know the truth about these matters, and if the Legislature won’t provide it, the new governor must demand it.

Hochul also needs to pledge to be fully open about her husband’s work and his interactions with state government.

William Hochul is an attorney and executive with Delaware North, a company that owns and operates casinos around the country and manages government-contracted concessions at places such as state parks and highway rest areas.

The potential for conflict between her new job and her husband’s current one is gigantic.

She should not only recuse herself from decisions on government matters in which he and his company have an interest, but also pledge to document and disclose any relevant information about those potential conflicts.

Anybody can promise transparency.

It’s keeping that promise that becomes a challenge once a politician gets into office.

If our new governor truly intends to restore trust in state government after the scandal-plagued Cuomo administration, she can’t just talk about it.

She has to prove it.

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