Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Government agencies in pandemic: Lack of connection, transparency

Since the Adirondack Park Agency’s monthly meetings went virtual, I have patched in to watch the fuzzy images and hear the fuzzy voices of the commissioners, on a feed that has the flavor of convicted felons appearing in court via closed circuit video.

And I’ve thought: This is a leading agency in a leading state in a leading country in the world and this is the best we can do? And the answer is, Yes! It is! Because other agencies, boards and panels are much worse. At least with the APA you can get a vague notion of what they are doing, as opposed to some remote Facebook feeds that are entirely inaudible or, in the case of one local government meeting, was broadcast upside down.

The stress test Covid has placed on ADK technology is a grim reminder that our communications and economic potential — which anymore are one and the same — are not ready for prime time. If a well-heeled state agency cannot get it together, what chance do Adirondack residents in need of education, medicine and jobs have?

But there’s one other thing.

APA board members themselves have pretty much had it with the poor quality of communication, and demanded a better way forward.

I sympathize and agree with the commissioners, but I would also suggest to them this: The frustration they are feeling over the poor state of communication is exactly the same frustrations the public has felt for years as it has tried to wring facts from the APA or DEC. The state agencies that govern the park — which in all other respects are enlightened, science based and forward thinking — are positively medieval when it comes to transparency.

Thanks to the reporting of the Adirondack Explorer, the public has been treated to two clear cut examples of late. First, some new members of the APA board weren’t even permitted to talk directly to the press, but had to fill out written (and no doubt pre-approved) answers to written questions.

These are our best and brightest, and the state doesn’t trust them to engage in a thoughtful conversation about their pre-existing viewpoints without their words being washed through agency gatekeepers? Who do they look like, Amy Coney Barrett?

The second example is the secret DEC High Peaks Advisory Group that is supposed to be drawing up guidelines that will affect anyone who ever sets a boot in Keene Valley for the rest of time. Every so often the state would release patently useless “minutes” of the meetings, which basically said “The HPAG met. Things were said. Refreshments included apple cider donuts, which members said were pretty good.”

The DEC said the group had to be closed to the public so its members could engage in honest conversation, which is such a stupid argument that it practically drools. It may come as news to the DEC, but it is possible to be honest in public. It should also be obvious that controversial policies, such as hiking permits, are all the more deserving of a public airing before being privately cast in stone and presented for pro forma public hearings.

And more recently, even these feeble dispatches from the HPAG have dropped off the map, even though the group has continued to meet. Pressed on what has been discussed, the DEC said the group has “focused on building upon the interim recommendations,” a statement that, in the words of Tommy Lee Jones, tells us precisely dick.

But this institutional secrecy goes far beyond these public examples. Employees are forbidden to talk to the press without going through “channels” that are time consuming and render timely stories meaningless. Inquiries about a press release come back from the state with even less information than was originally disseminated, and brief, boilerplate responses to important and complex questions seem designed to discourage such inquiries in the first place. To get an answer to the simplest questions it becomes necessary to file freedom of information requests.

So it becomes near impossible to extract any information beyond tweet level, or talk unencumbered to anyone with boots on the ground, such as rangers and land-use planners — the ones who are the most knowledgeable and whose thoughts might be most valuable to public understanding and interest.

The APA board and Advisory Group members, as well as the state agencies themselves, may feel this is not their problem, and maybe it’s not. But here’s the thing: Secrecy is the great de-legitimizer. You may take the most righteous, erudite action imaginable, but if your conclusions were reached behind closed doors people will always be suspicious. And they will be disinclined to follow any rules that are laid down as a result. 

State officers worried about their technological connections should be worried about their connections to the public as well.


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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

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14 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    Well put, but unfortunately I have no hope the situation will improve. My experiences dealing with local and state government mirror this article precisely. This disease extends down to local school boards and other local entities to the point that the average person has just given up that their interests are being heard or matter. The problem is not unique to the Adirondacks or New York State. The one way I have found that sometimes you can make your voice heard is by contacting individuals on these boards and committees directly with calls or by buttonholing them on the street. Some will take the time to listen. Any type of formal correspondence to the entire group is ignored or else spun into whatever they want to hear.

  2. Lee says:

    Good article. Most do not realize that they are not up front and hold info back . This is why laws get passed without public knowledge and most people would not agree to those laws if they new about them.

  3. Joan Grabe says:

    Whatever happened to Sunshine Laws and Freedom of Information ? This modern age with all the engines of information available has turned into the most suspicious, conspiracy minded, turned off society ever. The atrociously old communication systems used by state agencies are a budgetary problem. They were not a priority pre Covid, now they are a necessity but now there is even less money available for upgrades. Laws are not passed in the dark – there are hearings and meetings and a final vote. They are covered in newspapers and TV but people think that they have no input. With a representative government you get to choose who represents you so the main take away here is VOTE. Vote for the person who represents your views and seems honest and forthcoming.

  4. sandor says:

    Until hand picked political appointee APA board members are put in service via a different avenue other than a NYS GOV their verbal feedback, ideas, suggestions and experiences will be muzzled by a committee that holds secret quorums.A dictatorship squashed meeting needs to be made public by minutes,attendance, who and how voted.This committee should be held as political puppets who are not serving upstate.They need to come forward with the truth on radio,newpaper,internet. TIMROW you are the best at what you do thanks for rattling the gorillas cage.

  5. Vanessa says:

    I agree very much that secrecy is a delegitimizer! Also, yeah the state of internet access in the region seems as of yet not 100%. That will be key to attracting new jobs to the region from currently non-represented fields.

  6. Zephyr says:

    I don’t live the Adks but my organization has found that Zoom meetings are well attended and people seem to like them overall. We tend to do shorter meetings but more often. Online meetings longer than about an hour become too tiring for people. People from outside the area can attend. We can record them easily. If used properly Zoom-type meetings can add to transparency and help to inform people. I think we can all agree that a key to the economy anywhere is having broadband access.

  7. David Gibson says:

    Thank you, Tim. Right on. There are some bright spots. Example: APA’s large-scale subdivision application is transparent via the website and contains the letters, data and other details on which APA has relied to issue 3 notices of incompleteness to the developer. For years, advocates have pushed APA to post details, more than a vague paragraph about applications without having to use FOIL. In this one instance, APA has been responsive. They could go much much further with more of their applications. Thank you for your writing and your good sense of humor.

  8. Meg Hanney says:

    Secrecy breeds distrust and animosity. Successfully implemented projects are the result of an engaged constituency who haved formed their blueprint based on honest and open communication.

    • JohnL says:

      The Constitutional Convention in 1787 was held in complete secrecy. Closed windows, no air conditioning, very uncomfortable for the members. The theory was that only with secrecy within the Convention would members freely and completely express their opinions. That way, all ideas, good and bad, would be fully discussed. When the Convention hammered out the Constitution and approved it, obviously then it became public, for the public to approve or disapprove.
      Not necessarily advocating one way or another, just saying there is precedent for secrecy in situations like these.

      • Zephyr says:

        In today’s world of social media and the Internet it is nearly impossible to maintain total secrecy. If an organization tries to do it what happens is that bits and pieces are leaked out and often portray the proceedings inaccurately. Far better to be open and let everyone see and hear for themselves exactly what is happening. But, when things are going on that the org doesn’t want the world to see they resort to privacy because they know what they are doing would not be popular. I have seen this so many times with local city council meetings and school boards that I am now often highly skeptical of their motives, rightly or wrongly. I remember one school board meeting where $600K in expenditures were approved by voice vote and not a single question was asked by anyone on the board at the public meeting. Obviously they had discussed all of these things in private somewhere. At least I can vote for who gets on these boards, but not so with appointed groups.

      • Balian the Cat says:

        I have a memory of seeing “news” footage of reporters on the beach waiting for the marines to come ashore in Kuwait. There was some talk then of how that was not ideal for security – imagine if reporters were at Midway and asked the commanders if they felt secure in their plans to surprise the Japanese. I think Johns example is important even if times have changed. Sure, social media has altered the landscape (and the reality sometimes) but that’s part of the problem. Really important matters, items in need of security, and issues that require extended looks prior to decisions are impossible to navigate in a world where everybody with an internet connection is an expert with an opinion. Remember when Flat Earthers were just kooks? Well, that’s practically highbrow thinking in a world where vast swaths of the community have come to believe in pedophile cannibals and chem trail mind control. The death of expertise is an unfortunate result of the mass dissemination of information. Life saving measures cannot be subject to internet polling.

  9. Adktrailhead says:

    All tax money funded activities and organizations should be completely OPEN and accountable.

  10. John Scales says:

    Mr. Rowland great article , but this is how Cuomo wants things to operate under his leadership or lack of . When he , ( Cuomo ) Commissions his staff the lack of connection and transparency is his mode of operation . Sad state of affairs for all New Yorkers .

  11. DOUGLAS KERR says:

    change….the best thing that will come out of this ….good or bad EXPERIENCE IS THE ALMIGHTY TEACHER