Mayor Bill de Blasio made headlines back in May when he held a ceremony to honor legendarily dogged muckraker Jimmy Breslin and then refused to take questions from reporters after the event. As the Times noted, the presentation, stage-managed and unidirectional, was exactly the kind of thing “the cantankerous columnist and advocate of ordinary New Yorkers would have skewered.”
A certain queasiness with the press, and with transparency in general, has become a hallmark of de Blasio’s tenure. This spring, we reported that de Blasio’s office has one of the city’s worst response times — 66 days — for requests under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). He’s called the New York Post “propaganda” and a “right-wing rag.” And in March, frustrated that reporters weren’t asking the right questions, he stormed away from a press conference in midtown.
As this pattern became clear, back in October of last year, the Voice filed a FOIL request seeking whatever materials the administration uses to train its public relations staff. We were interested in what the materials might reveal about City Hall’s approach to press inquiries.
Specifically, we asked for “a copy of any manuals, instructional documents, guidelines, orientation materials, or any substantially similar records used for training or reference by public information personnel, communications personnel, or any employee, regardless of title, whose job is primarily to communicate with the media.”
We submitted the request on October 28, through the city’s new, purportedly streamlined online FOIL portal. And then, to no one’s surprise, we waited.
It took more than six months to receive a complete response to our request, which arrived on May 5. That’s almost three times the administration’s abysmal average.
So what was so sensitive that it needed a six-month review process, you might ask? Talking points. A PowerPoint presentation, to be exact, with a list of positive facts about the city. “71,000 children in pre-K,” one slide read. “Unprecedented declines in crime,” “$667 million in agency savings over two years.”
That’s it. That, and some instructions on how to use the city logo properly. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it took the mayor’s office more than six months to make public a set of talking points compiled explicitly for release to the public.
And even then, the city still redacted nine pages. The city’s lawyers claimed they could be withheld under what’s known as the “deliberative process” exemption.
That provision of state law is meant to protect the government’s ability to exchange ideas freely, says Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, the state agency that acts as the steward of the Freedom of Information Law. (Freeman helped draft it in the early seventies.)
“The deliberative process involves the back and forth between or among government officials,” Freeman explains. “ ‘You know, I think you ought to do this.’ ‘No, I think we should to do that.’ ” It explicitly doesn’t include any finalized policies, Freeman adds, or “instructions to staff.” Materials like that can’t be kept secret.
It seemed unlikely that training materials could be considered anything other than “instructions to staff.”
But OK. We filed an appeal. More time passed. On May 22, just shy of seven months after our initial request, the city denied our final appeal. If we wanted the documents, we would have to go to court.
Then we called Eric Phillips, the mayor’s press secretary. We asked him, politely: Isn’t this all a little ironic? He said he’d get the redacted pages for us.
Surely, we figured, since the mayor’s office used up a lot of perfectly good city resources on this back and forth, there’d be something truly sensitive in those redacted pages once they were finally turned over. (Why they were withheld to begin with is another question.) Maybe it was something less than flattering. FOIL appeals are reviewed by a lawyer, after all, whose time is undoubtedly valuable.
Nope! The redacted PowerPoint slides are anodyne to the point of being useless. “CONNECT with your audience’s concerns,” one slide reads. “LEAD to your point. DISTINGUISH from the alternative.” On another slide, there’s a picture of an ice cream cone, with zero context. On a third slide, an inscrutable graphic with some lightbulbs, a head, and a heart.
To recap, the mayor’s office spent many months and probably a few billable hours wrangling over documents that aren’t sensitive, aren’t embarrassing, and are emphatically uninteresting. (Read them below if you don’t believe us.)
We weren’t expecting this request to return a journalistic bombshell. But if the de Blasio administration responds to simple, straightforward requests with massive delays and unnecessary roadblocks, how do they treat those asking for more sensitive, vital information?
Ask the family of Ramarley Graham, for example, who had to file their own FOIL requests with the NYPD to find out how, exactly, the teenager was killed by city officers in 2012. Their case is making its way through court now.
Asked why the PR documents had taken so long to produce, Philips didn’t offer much insight. “We get lots of FOILs,” he answered simply, via email. As for the ice cream? “I have no idea.”
UPDATE: [Posted 7/28/17, 1:20 p.m.]
We’ve learned more about why that ice cream cone was reproduced, sans context, in a government document.
After this post went up, Amy Spitalnick — former press secretary for de Blasio, now in the same role at the state attorney general’s office, and creator of the materials in question — was able to shed some more light on Coneghazi.
The slide is an illustration, Spitalnick said, for a media training exercise designed to help a speaker learn to stay on message.
“You ask someone an unrelated question and tell them that, in their answer, they have to include the fact that chocolate ice cream is the best food in the world,” she wrote in an email. “It sounds strange, but it’s pretty effective in getting people to remember to make the points they need to make.”
So there you have it. As scandalous as we suspected.