Editor’s Notebook: Why I Flipped on Secrecy

By Chip Rowe

Many people were concerned when the Putnam Legislature passed a law on July 2 that allows county lawmakers, employees, contractors and consultants to mark any document “confidential,” keeping it safe from the prying eyes of voters and (God forbid) journalists, and threatening a one-way ticket to the ethics board and possible prosecution for anyone who intentionally shares material deemed secret.

It also makes any interactions with the Law Department, or the legislative counsel, automatically confidential, which is convenient. If you want to keep something secret, send a copy to the lawyers!

I was concerned about the law — at first. But I have grown to love it and am thankful to County Executive MaryEllen Odell for making it official despite the warnings from a number of legal minds that it might not be prudent.

I hate to think I caused the county executive or any legislator undue stress when I shared the proposed law with the state’s Open Government Committee and the New York News Publishers Association, of which The Current is a member, and they shared it with a few lawyers who specialize in free speech. Some chuckled after reading it, which is rude. But everyone agreed the law was pointless, and unenforceable, since county lawmakers can’t make anything confidential — only state and federal law can do that. The NYNPA wrote Odell to let her know.

The law allows legislators and county employees to mark documents they would like to keep secret “confidential.”

In fact, the county agreed! In a statement, eight of the nine legislators reassured residents not to worry. This statement was read at a public hearing hosted by Odell (who wasn’t there) by the legislative counsel, a.k.a. “the 10th legislator,” who has written a number of resolutions at taxpayers’ expense destined for a circular file in Albany. In the statement, the lawmakers complained about the news media stirring up trouble and insisted the regulation was not meant to hide anything from voters but to remind county employees that they work behind one-way glass.

But, look, that’s all in the past. My kids are at camp and, in the quiet, I realized how foolish I’ve been. When I rejected the law because of how it looked, I failed to recognize its inner beauty: From this day forward, anything a legislator or county official doesn’t want the press or the public to see will be marked “confidential.” It’s like Monty Hall telling you which door has the prize.

I have marked my calendar, and on the first business day of each month, beginning Sept. 3, The Current will file a FOIL request with each county agency (including the new tourism department!) to receive every document marked confidential in the previous month. These should not be too hard to locate, since they will have “confidential” written on them.

I am sorry to create work for anyone, but under state law, the county attorney will be compelled to review each allegedly confidential item — including those produced by the Law Department or the legislative counsel, no freebies! — to determine if they fall under one of eight exemptions to the state Freedom of Information Law that dictate when governments can withhold information.

What’s more, the FOIL doesn’t allow the county to say a set of documents or emails is exempt. It must review the contents of each document and, if anything can be released, even a paragraph, redact the secret material and release the rest.

Before this new county law, a reporter would often fly blind, guessing which Putnam documents might have the information he or she was after. Now the secrets will be marked with blinking neon signs. We plan to share what we find in a feature called Confidential Corner that will launch later this year.

Thank you, Putnam County Legislature! I’m glad we could work together on this.

7 thoughts on “Editor’s Notebook: Why I Flipped on Secrecy

  1. A fine example of cooperation between the press and public officials.

    It’s funny how if you pay a man to look after your horse, after a while he’ll start to think of it as his horse.

    And if you pay a public official to look after your public records, he’ll start to think of them as his records.

    Looking forward to visiting Confidential Corner.

  2. Last month, I attended the legislative Physical Services meeting and during the discussion on the donation of land on John Simpson Road, confronted Attorney Negro whether communication between the donor and the county were subject to FOIL.

    I did so since this land had a solid restriction on its use by the donor and voila within a month, it was subsequently removed, giving the county exclusive rights to its use. The whole issue of the use will be subject to serious legal and resident opposition. After a few moments, Negro agreed that the communication could be made public. I filed the FOIL the next day and am awaiting the Law Department’s response.

  3. Attention board of directors of The Highlands Current: Your editor deserves a raise.