by Tom Ellis
ALBANY, NY: In late February, the NYS Inspector General released a 40+ page report trashing Ward Stone, accusing him of bullying his subordinates, intimidating his supervisors, misusing state funds, and being some sort of a monster. The report drew considerable news coverage including a February 28 article in the New York Times. Some of the allegations are undoubtedly true, at least in part, but the report is overkill and hopefully the public views it as such.
The report asserted Ward “Stone almost always acted alone, often zealously pursuing matters without the knowledge of his supervisors, and even at times contrary to the directions of his supervisors.” Ward Stone did not act alone. He collaborated with hundreds of community groups and several Native American nations in New York.
The report could be part of an Andrew Cuomo campaign to remind NYS government workers of what awaits them if they step out of line. Maybe the second Governor Cuomo is one-upping his dad: finishing the job of incapacitating Ward Stone’s effectiveness his dad tried and failed to accomplish. Maybe the Inspector General, Ellen Biben, wanted to impress Cuomo; she has now been appointed to head up the state’s new “Ethics” commission.
The new Joint Commission on Public Ethics operates in secrecy. See an April 4 Albany Times Union editorial commenting on the commission’s refusal to comply with a request from the Associated Press for records of the vote it took to hire Biben, a longtime aide to Cuomo. The commission is made up of appointees of the governor and state legislature. The editorial concluded with, “It comes down to this: If the body that’s empowered to ensure integrity in state government is beyond public scrutiny, it’s rather hard to have faith in its integrity.”
My sense is the report has much more to do with Andrew Cuomo and Ellen Biben than Ward Stone. He became an easy target who carelessly allowed himself to get caught. Ward Stone not only broke the rules but bragged about it often. Some of what he did was plain foolish such as not turning in time sheets for several years.
Nevertheless Ward Stone is a great scientist and in some ways a strong role model for public sector workers. He was NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Wildlife Pathologist from 1969 to 2010. I remember when the first Governor Cuomo was trying to reign him in twenty-five years ago. Either Mario Cuomo or one of his staff insisted the state must speak with one voice. Ward Stone’s view was and still is: not if you’re lying and the environment and public health are endangered or damaged.
Consider the absurd working conditions tens of thousands of professionals employed by the state of New York endure. Before they can speak in public about the issues they have expertise on, they must obtain permission, which is rarely granted. At present, we have hundreds of DEC professionals who believe widespread horizontal hydro-fracking, if allowed in NYS, will be a disaster and that Governor Como is rushing the review process. Yet nearly all are muzzled. Why does the state not allow DEC employees to speak in public? The state could reasonably require them to acknowledge they are not speaking for the department or the state, but presenting their own professional opinions.
Not only are they not allowed to speak in public but their views are being quashed within the department. A year and a half ago, departing Governor Paterson fired DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis after an internal DEC memo was leaked. The memo warned of devastating impact additional DEC staff cuts would have on the agency’s ability to perform is duties. The memo read in part: “Many of our programs are hanging by a thread. The public would be shocked to learn how thin we are in many areas. DEC is at its weakest position that it has been since it was created 40 years ago.”
Who benefits? Imagine working in an environment where you have to shut up about matters of great importance? What does that do to your self respect or sense of professionalism? It is easy to see why so many state employees are demoralized. Must citizens surrender their freedom of speech to work for the State of New York? At present, NYS desperately needs a wide-open discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of hydro-fracking but we are denied it within state government. Why is the state Health Department so quiet on fracking? Having a free exchange of ideas – what Ward Stone has always insisted on – is how science is advanced and the public health and environment protected.
Published in May/June, 2012 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter