NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio, who promised to run the most transparent administration in city history, has taken steps to have his office review any public records request of any city agency that could “reflect directly on the mayor.”
That broad mandate, outlined in a May 5 email obtained by The Associated Press, could give de Blasio’s office control over virtually all newsworthy Freedom of Information Law requests from journalists, watchdog groups or members of the public.
Although the ramifications of the policy are not yet clear, transparency advocates fear such control could lead to prolonged delays in responding to records requests, a criticism both President Barack Obama and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced when they instituted similar policies.
“The concern from a transparency perspective will be if City Hall orders the delay or partial release or in any way impedes anything but a full and robust response,” said John Kaehny, director of the nonprofit Reinvent Albany and a co-chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group.
De Blasio administration officials defended the policy, arguing that it’s legal for government officials to consult on records requests before releasing public information.
Spokeswoman Ishanee Parikh said the policy was designed to enhance transparency, not thwart it, ensuring agency FOIL lawyers don’t unnecessarily redact portions of requested documents.
She wouldn’t say what prompted the order, how many requests have been forwarded to City Hall since it was issued and what those requests were for. She noted the mayor’s lawyers have responded to more than 500 of 700 public information requests since de Blasio took office 19 months ago.
The directive is just the latest in a series of efforts to control access and information that started the first day de Blasio took office — when the Democrat initially barred media from attending his midnight swearing-in ceremony. In his first five months in office, more than 20 percent of the mayor’s listed public events were closed to the media, the AP found. And earlier this year, the New York Press Club denounced his practice of refusing to answer “off topic” questions during news conferences and for herding protesters into roped-off “free-speech zones.”
In the May 5 email sent to nearly 60 city lawyers who handle public records requests, City Hall attorney Bess Chiu ordered that a range of documents, including those that could “reflect directly on the mayor,” be forwarded to the mayor’s lawyers for review two weeks before they are sent to whoever asked for them.
It also asks for requests that “due to their level of attention, sensitivity or controversy could result in questions for City Hall.”
Experts say previous administrations, including that of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, likely funneled potentially embarrassing requests through the mayor’s office for review as an informal policy.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government and a leading expert on the state’s freedom of information law, said that it’s legal for government officials to consult on disclosures as long as it doesn’t result in prolonged delays.
“This kind of practice, to my mind, makes it unnecessarily difficult for members of the public to get information that should be made available quickly and easily,” he said of the memo.
Before he was mayor, de Blasio held the office of public advocate. In that job, he called for reforms to the public records process to make it more transparent.