New York City must release a consultant's review of the city's 911 system and emergency response times that Mayor Bloomberg's administration has been fighting to keep private, a civil court judge decided Monday.
Saying his decision stemmed from a belief in open government and transparency, Supreme Court Justice Arthur F. Engoron said that the taxpayer-funded consultant's report and all its drafts belong to the people of New York City.
"The city's not the only interest group here. And the city's not infallible," Engoron said after comparing the city's claim that the report should be private to President Richard Nixon's claims of executive privilege during the Watergate scandal.
Lawyers for the city had argued that the review, commissioned after a massive blizzard in December 2010 that stranded ambulances and backed up the emergency call system, is still in draft form. They claimed that an order to release the documents could have a chilling effect on city employees, who might become reluctant to freely express their opinions.
"If policymakers felt they could not give or receive blunt or candid feedback without it being publicized, the entire public would be at a detriment," said city lawyer Gail Mulligan.
But the judge sided with lawyers for unions representing city firefighters, who argued that it was in the interest of their clients — and of the public — to learn about any problems with the 911 system that could be delaying response times and putting lives at risk.
"They could label this a draft in perpetuity," said Joshua Zuckerberg, a lawyer for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "It's a cover up ... plain and simple."
Kate O'Brien Ahlers, a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department, said the city was very disappointed with the ruling and would consider appealing. Last week, Bloomberg questioned whether the current version of the report was accurate. City officials had said they planned to make the final version of the report public soon.
The mayor argued Monday that the ruling set a dangerous precedent.
"I don't know how any government would be able to function if you had to put out every single paper, even at the beginning of a study and all through the study," he said. "If the courts say you have to publish this, you have to publish everything."
Under the judge's ruling, the documents must be released within seven days to the unions, which may then decide whether to submit them into evidence during a public arbitration hearing scheduled for April 20. There is no mandate forcing the Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association to make the documents publicly available, and the unions' lawyers on Monday stopped short of promising to do so.
The unions contend that the city's recent overhaul of the 911 system has led to delays that have been concealed by a change in how the city calculates its fire response times. Administration officials say the overhaul has modernized an out-of-date system and eliminated inefficiencies, improving response times.