Prominently displayed on the state's homepage for its Regional Economic Development Councils program is a quote from Gov. Andrew Cuomo:
"Through the Regional Economic Development Councils, we have replaced the 'one-size fits all' approach to economic growth with a 'ground-up' strategy that focuses on cooperation and investing in regional assets to generate opportunity."
A key term in that quote is "ground-up." It's something the governor and his economic development staff have frequently pointed to when touting the strength of the regional council model. By putting regional business development leaders on councils to develop strategies and review projects for potential state assistance, the power to improve areas of upstate New York rests not with Albany or New York City bureaucrats, but the people living, working and leading in the affected communities.
With that power, though, comes responsibility and accountability. And to achieve those, it's vital to have transparency.
That's why we wholeheartedly reject the contention this week by Howard Zemsky, New York's chief economic developer, that conflict-of-interest disclosure forms submitted by members of the council are not any of the public's business.
The argument made by Zemsky is that economic development council members are volunteers who don't have final decision-making power. “These folks don’t have any statutory responsibility," Zemsky said during a legislative hearing Monday. "They can’t actually enact anything based on their decision-making."
Allowing conflicts of interest of council members to be viewed publicly would have a chilling effect on the ability to attract the best people to serve in these roles, he further argued.
Such claims are highly suspect. New York's Freedom of Information Law is pretty clear about the presumption of openness with respect to records created, collected and maintained by government agencies. In this case, the state correctly believes it's important enough to gather information about potential conflicts that they want a formal record in place. All New Yorkers should have the ability to see if the projects being supported (or rejected) by these advisory councils have connections to the people voting up or down on their recommendations.
Some critics of the regional economic development council model have argued that the exercise is merely a public relations exercise. That the governor's office, not the councils, are the ones picking winners and losers and using this model as cover. An ongoing federal trial of one of Cuomo's former top aides in an economic development corruption scandal certainly provides more ammunition to this criticism.
One of the best ways to combat that perception is to make the councils themselves fully transparent. We urge Zemsky and Cuomo to rethink the stance that members' disclosures are not the public's business.
The Citizen Editorial Board includes publisher Rob Forcey, managing editor Mike Dowd and executive editor Jeremy Boyer.