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Promise of transparency plagues Governor Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo began his term in office promising that he would run one of the most transparent and open governments in New York state history. But, eighteen months into his term, news stories relating to Cuomo's perceived lack of transparency in government have proliferated.

First, the Albany Times Union reported that Cuomo administration officials had purged records from the state archives from Cuomo's time as attorney general.

The files related to the so-called Troopergate scandal and a scathing report written by then-Attorney General Cuomo. It condemned behavior by top staff members of former Governor Elliot Spitzer and exonerated then-state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

The paper's charges prompted a 1,300 word angry letter from Cuomo's communications director. It accused the paper of manufacturing a story to rehabilitate its own image.

The New York Times, a recipient of a 2,200 word letter from the same Cuomo communications official on another topic, posted a story that detailed what it said was Cuomo's self-editing of his attorney general papers.

The Associated Press reported that the governor's staff was extremely slow to answer Freedom of Information Act requests. It told the wire service it was still looking for a video response from the governor at the annual media dinner two months after the event took place.

The reports came amid news that Cuomo and his top staff use an untraceable instant message service on their BlackBerrys to communicate.

By the end of last week, several major newspapers printed scathing editorials calling the governor secretive and controlling. And the Albany news weekly Metroland was comparing him to Richard Nixon.

Reform groups say they have some ideas on how the governor can improve his standing on the subject

Sue Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York says there's a way to remedy some of the negative news stories for Cuomo. She says state officials should all agree to one standard for release of papers through the state archives.

"We don't believe that every single scrap of paper should be immediately available to the press and the public," said Lerner.

And she said it's okay to seal records for a number of years so that a politician's adversaries can't use the files against them for political purposes.

But Lerner says each official should not be making up new rules every time papers are donated to the archives. Or worse, arbitrarily changing the rules in a middle of a press inquiry.

"It's completely unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game, as was done to several reporters in the last few months," said Lerner.

Common Cause has begun to work on a proposal to develop fair guidelines for the release of an official's public papers.

Polls show that Cuomo continues to be popular with New Yorkers, who are pleased with the governor's track record of getting things done.

The most recent Quinnipiac University poll measured the governor's approval rating at 73 percent.  

Bill Samuels, the founder of the New Roosevelt Initiative, credits Cuomo with accomplishments like enacting same-sex marriage and closing a multi-billion dollar budget gap after years of profound dysfunction in Albany.

But Samuels says those agreements were crafted mostly in secret, in private one-on-one meeting with legislative leaders. And he says he sees the governor's methods as a serious problem.

"By getting things done in the old way, he's establishing a culture that may be working now, but long-term is not a reformed culture."

Samuels' father ran for governor in the 1970s with Cuomo's father, Mario Cuomo, as his running mate. Samuels says Cuomo needs to learn how to accept criticism and not shoot the messenger.

"When we criticize, he should not take it as disloyalty. He needs to realize we are just putting forth alternative ideas on how to reform and improve some particular problem facing New York," said Samuels.

Samuels says the governor has a chance to change the narrative. Cuomo has said he intends to launch a new effort for campaign finance reform. And Samuels says Cuomo could hold public hearings and create an open process to develop legislation, as well as set a good example on his own, by saying he won't accept any more corporate donations.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.