Don’t muzzle state workers

The New York State Department of Transportation has made itself a poster child for hierarchical lockstep by forcing out Essex County engineer Mike Fayette because he talked to a reporter last year.

In that interview Fayette praised his agency to the skies, telling a reporter for The Adirondack Daily Enterprise – based in Saranac Lake – how proud he was of the DOT’s response to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, when flooding from the rain wiped out a section of state Route 73 and other roads, bridges, etc. Why fire him for that?

The problem, apparently, is that DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald wanted to be the one to do that interview. She – and/or her boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo – wanted her name in print, associated with all that good work on the ground that Fayette and his co-workers did.

To do that interview instead of Fayette, she would’ve had to do one of two things:

  • She could have spoken in vague terms, and then the public would have been less informed. Fluffy, nondescript praise would have done little to answer the public’s questions. Fayette, on the other hand, was able to tell readers what state road workers saw in the storm’s aftermath, what they did about it, how hard it was and how they felt about it. He was there.
  • Commissioner McDonald (or, more likely, one of her staff members) could have asked state workers about their experience and relayed that to the newspaper’s readers in her own voice. That would have made inaccuracy, exaggeration or spin more likely, and it would have removed the names of any on-the-ground workers who did the job. To a certain degree, it might sound like a top official taking credit for someone else’s work.

This is bad public policy. It needlessly restricts the flow of information to the public. It also shifts credit from where it’s due to power brokers, feeding their egos at others’ expense.

What is wrong about people who do jobs for the public, paid for by the public, talking to the public?

Nothing, of course.

There’s also nothing wrong with a top state official talking to the public.

Ideally, the public would hear from both.

But there’s no good reason to subtract state workers from the story.