Analysis: Transparency in Government — A Murky Goal

Mayor isn’t practicing what he preaches.

Both State Supreme Court Judge Arthur F. Engoron and Mayor Bloomberg say they believe in transparency in government. But the judge says the mayor isn’t practicing what he preaches.

And the judge has ordered the Bloomberg administration to release a consultant’s review of the city’s 911 system and response system within seven days.

It’s a sensitive matter because the report deals with a life-and-death issue: whether the system is working well enough to get emergency help to people as rapidly as possible when it’s needed.

City lawyers have argued that the report on the emergency system should be kept private, that it is still in draft form. The review was commissioned after the great blizzard of December 2010 when ambulances were blocked and the emergency system failed. The lawyers argued that an order to release the documents might have a chilling effect on city workers who might hesitate to express their opinions.

The judge said: “The city’s not the only interest group here. And the city’s not infallible.” And he likened the city’s claim that the report should be private to President Richard Nixon’s claims of executive privilege during the Watergate scandal.

Engoron came down on the side of lawyers for the firefighters’ unions -- that it was in the interest of their clients and the public to learn about any problems with the 911 system. Were such problems delaying response times and putting lives at risk?

Dick Dadey of the reform group, Citizens Union, told me: “The public has to have trust that government can work effectively. It’s important, too, that government learn from its mistakes.

By denying the public access to information, it increases the chance that people will get suspicious of what the government is doing.”

Bloomberg summed it up well in a radio address in April 2009: “I’m a big believer in the idea that transparency in government makes for good government. Transparency allows the public to see exactly how their elected leaders are performing, and to hold them accountable for results.”

It appears that the mayor doesn’t always practice what he preaches.

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