What part of “public” do public servants not understand? Come to think of it, you could ask the same question about “servant,” which causes equal amounts of confusion in government offices.
You can see it in local governments that have tried to deny their employers – the taxpayers – information on everything from how much was spent on a secret buyout in Hamburg, to how much was misspent by a fired Buffalo school official, to Erie County’s refusal to come clean about its troubled jails.
And you can see it most tragically in the response to efforts to learn what went wrong, and how to correct it, in the savage beating death of 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud by his stepfather in Buffalo last year, 12 months after the boy called 911 and Erie County Child Protective Services got involved.
Did CPS take every reasonable step to protect the child? If not, who was disciplined and what procedures were changed? If another child in the same circumstance calls 911 today, will he or she be protected any better? The public still doesn’t know, and may never find out, because the state won’t release the report.
What’s the common thread that ties all of these cases together?
It’s the arrogance of government. It’s the “Trust us! We know best!” attitude. It’s government’s use of the mushroom treatment: Keep us in the dark, and every once in a while, dump a little manure on us.
Public service is the only sector in which, when it comes to the right to know, the employee tells the employer to take a hike. Granted, there’s more to consider in Abdi’s death than the standard municipal cover-up. The county and the state Office of Children and Family Services considered the impact that releasing the report could have on his two siblings.
We don’t want the type of publicity that could dissuade future victims from coming forward or have other unintended consequences, said University at Buffalo law professor Susan Mangold. But she also noted the need for public accountability.
“These are the sorts of issues that aren’t really well dealt with,” said Mangold, co-director of UB’s Program for Excellence in Family Law.
They aren’t dealt with well because, in writing such laws, legislators’ instinct is to protect government and put public accountability at the bottom of the priority list. OCFS says that it can’t release even redacted parts of the fatality report because the law, as written, makes it an all-or-nothing proposition.
Now, after the fact, local state legislators want to amend the law to deal with a problem that would have been anticipated if the governmental mindset upfront was always to give the public as much information as possible. Instead, it seems to be to hide as much as possible. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to prompt legislators to make public disclosure the default option.
Changing the CPS law is an obvious first step. But it’s also the easy one.
If lawmakers are really serious, they’ll also strengthen the state’s toothless Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws to impose real penalties when politicians abuse them.
And they could do one more thing to foster a change in mindset: Change our nickname. The imperious attitude toward disclosure indicates public officials are taking the “empire” in Empire State far too literally.