February 24, 2013

Editorial: Restricting media access


---- — It’s concerning to hear that a regional official for the State Department of Transportation was almost fired for talking with the media. It is, unfortunately, part of a growing restriction of access by New York state hierarchy.

Michael Fayette says his bosses at DOT wanted to fire him for doing an interview with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and also for talking at an Essex County Board of Supervisors meeting and later answering questions from the Press-Republican.

Fayette was resident engineer in charge of DOT operations for Essex County until his retirement, which he says he took to save himself from being fired.

He said that after he talked with the Enterprise in August 2012 — an innocuous discussion about DOT response to Hurricane Irene — he was summoned to Albany for a reprimand and sent a letter charging him with a disciplinary violation.

DOT said in the letter that Fayette had “disobeyed a written directive” by doing an interview that the DOT commissioner intended to do herself and that he would be fired as a result.

A couple of months later — after he had negotiated a plan for retirement instead of termination — Fayette talked at an Essex County Board of Supervisors meeting and also spoke with a P-R reporter about a program he was promoting.

Because of that, DOT suspended Fayette for insubordination and for not complying with the terms of his upcoming retirement.

It might appear that this is all about bruised egos, but the bigger picture is that it appears the state is restricting a management-level employee from speaking with the press.

Yes, many state agencies have appointed spokespeople, and reporters usually go to them first for information. But they often can’t answer all the questions as well as the employees out in the field, who have more details and direct experience to report.

Take a story about the local impact of Hurricane Irene — who would have more first-hand information to report: the state commissioner in Albany or the engineer who was out in the county dealing with the devastating storm himself?

Some administrators might make a case for restricting employees from talking about a controversy; agencies like to control how issues are characterized as they try to put a positive spin on problems. But the subjects Fayette was addressing weren’t anything to cause administrative jitters.

Fayette was a respected, professional and intelligent state employee whose only previous reported disciplinary problem was using state equipment to correspond with his girlfriend two years ago. Since he was forced out for talking with the media, other state employees are likely to be fearful they could suffer the same fate. They might be afraid to answer even the most harmless questions.

In the past few months, the Press-Republican has seen more and more occasions where sources who have always spoken with us are now referring questions to state officials in Albany in what appears to be an effort to carefully control messages.

Those controls sound very much like a violation of the public’s right to the most reliable information.