Mayor de Blasio’s announcement that five key advisers are considered “agents of the city” and can therefore give him advice shielded from public disclosure is so politically cringeworthy one can only conclude that he needs to recruit some new agents.
Like other ethical questions that have surfaced about the mayor in recent weeks, however, de Blasio’s move to limit the reach of the Freedom of Information Law is not an especially dramatic break from past—and equally troubling—moves by other officials.
Pols often attempt to cloak their advisers in secrecy. Remember the fight over whether the Bush White House had to disclose information about Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force? Such efforts usually cause more controversy than would be triggered by any of the information they conceal, but they’re common.
Trouble is, sometimes officials are in their rights to keep advice under wraps. Freedom of information laws are usually written with an eye toward balancing the public’s need to hold leaders accountable and officials’ legitimate need to get frank advice.
New York State’s open records law, for instance, allows agencies to protect from disclosure “inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not statistical or factual tabulations or data … instructions to staff that affect the public … final agency policy or determinations; or … external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government.”
Those areas of exemption beg interpretation, and City Limits has certainly encountered interpretations we thought were over-broad.
Back in 2011, reporter Ruth Ford wanted to see the recommendations that Boston Consulting Group had offered NYCHA as part of BCG’s $10 million study of the authority, but she was told those were off limits because the recommendations weren’t final. In 2008, reporter Ali Winston tried to get information on NYPD surveillance activities that One Police Plaza had transmitted to the City Council, but he was told that constituted “inter-agency” communication. (“Separation of powers? What’s that?”) And forget about learning the advice consultants gave: The Bloomberg administration used to refuse to disclose even the contracts governing massive payments to fancy-pants consultants.
De Blasio’s move is a twist on that tradition, but the tradition exists—and becomes more problematic as private operators with agendas all their own play a bigger and bigger role in the public realm, whether in the form of political advice to a mayor or policymaking tips to agencies.
The transparency issues are just part of what makes the “agents of the city” thing a little icky, though. The other part is that de Blasio’s secret agents (Do we think they have double-0 code names?) also work for other entities that have businesses before the city.
But that’s also a problem that pre-existed the mayor. As reporter Ross Barkan wrote for us in 2013:
The firms that both consult and lobby turn the typical pay-to-play concerns of government watchdogs on their head. The issue here is not who’s giving money to a campaign, but who’s receiving candidates’ money—in exchange for valuable help. Consultants are, according to political observers, vital components of any operation: They are in many instances the quarterbacks of campaigns, plotting get-out-the-vote efforts, crafting media strategy and exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition. By accepting or rejecting a client, skilled consultants can significantly affect the odds of a campaign succeeding.
None of this absolves or accuses the mayor and his people of anything. What it all suggests is that given the growing, multifaceted role of consultants in politics and policy, our FOIL laws might need an update.