Gov. Andrew Cuomo started a new website Thursday to solicit comments from New Yorkers, promote his agenda, and announce meetings and travel destinations.
The state-paid website will also allow what Cuomo says will be online town halls. Cuomo will hold the first Internet chat Saturday morning, and aides will do more in following weeks. The site allows New Yorkers to pose questions and recommend actions as a way to improve state government by involving citizens.
Cuomo has said he wants to promote his initiatives directly to the public to avoid what he calls the "beltway politics" of those who oppose his measures and news organizations.
Cuomo's press office has been aggressive when faced with opposing views in news stories. His administration has also been criticized for blacking out material in state records sought by reporters under the state Freedom of Information Law.
"Democracy works when the voice of the people rings strong and citizens participate in government," Cuomo said in a statement released Thursday. "It will be a place New Yorkers can visit to communicate with their leaders and sign up for community activities; and it will allow New Yorkers to have a direct window into the workings of their government ... It's time government gets up to date."
The schedules of past months released Thursday by Cuomo portray the Democrat as a tireless executive with frequent public policy meetings followed by business dinners with lawmakers in the governor's mansion. They replace what was long presented to the public as the governor's official schedule, but which is now being called a "proposed schedule."
The schedules released Thursday also note a meeting he had with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just days before each governor would claim they knew nothing of the Port Authority's proposed toll increases and detail Cuomo's response to the recent tropical storms.
Cuomo used private aircraft of political backers twice to events, which Cuomo reported as "in-kind services" in campaign contributions. Cuomo said he hasn't yet used state aircraft for a "mixed use" of political activity and government work, but his administration makes it clear Albany's rules for use of aircraft allow governors to fly to political events if they reimburse for the cost and there is some legitimate government purpose to part of the trip.
In one trip to Syracuse that was to include a campaign fundraiser, the political supporter who provided the plane isn't identified and won't be until campaign filings are released months from now.
The information Cuomo now provides, however, comes with a caveat that "unofficial or personal events" aren't included and information has been withheld that "might tend to compromise security."
That security issue has been used by Cuomo to redact the destinations for his past use of state aircraft in a request under the state Freedom of Information Law by The Associated Press in August. The AP reported that Cuomo used state aircraft at times to take him to his home in Westchester County and pick up him to start his day, requiring state police to fly the aircraft to or from Albany where the aircraft must be kept overnight.
The new schedules released Thursday noted most of his trips to Westchester, but listed them as part of official trips earlier that day without reference to going home. Cuomo doesn't reimburse the state for those trips and, through spokesmen, defends the trips to and from home worth about $1,000 an hour.
Cuomo did reimburse state for more than $1,000 for a friend of his daughter's who went with the governor and his daughter to an event on Long Island this summer.
Cuomo never sought an opinion from the state Commission on Public Integrity on the complex issue that has snared Govs. Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki in the past. Instead, he said his executive branch attorneys found it appropriate.
Cuomo, without the usual press conference or advance notice for major legislation, signed an ethics reform bill the day the AP story was published that dissolved the commission, which would have also investigated any complaint of Cuomo's use of aircraft until a new board to be created in coming months .
The administration said Cuomo signed the new ethics bill not because of the story, but because the governor was headed for vacation.
The administration had no cost for the new website, but said it was compiled with state workers, not outside consultants. The administration isn't certain how quickly the schedules and use of aircraft will be updated.