Bloomberg Contra Notification Norms

Consider a recent NYT article by Mosi Secret and Michael Barbaro about the controversy over New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failure to inform the public about the actual reason — an arrest in Washington, D.C. for domestic violence* — deputy mayor Stephen Goldsmith resigned this summer.

According to the article, Bloomberg “rejected the notion that he had an obligation to tell the public of the arrest.” He is quote saying, “I always assumed it would come out, but it’s not my responsibility.”

It’s a first rate example of notification in the public sphere and of how overlapping relational circles can suggest contradictory notification rules.

It turns out that it’s not just a notification issue, though. Initially the mayor said the resignation was to pursue other opportunities — in other words, he was pretty explicitly misleading not just failing to reveal.

But back to notification. Bloomberg, apparently, takes the line is that his first obligation was instrumental, making sure “he no longer works for the city.” And then his next obligation is to treat Goldsmith and his family with respect. His critics suggest that his first obligation is to the public, although the one quoted in the article, Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, sticks with the instrumental saying Bloomberg has responsibility to “protect the public, not to protect a staff member” according to the article. But nobody really seems to be saying that there was any instrumental damage done by the non-notification and it’s a bit disingenuous to say that getting Goldsmith off the city payroll was facilitated by non-notification.

The issue, then, is how the various relational imperatives governing who ought to tell whom what when and how interact. New York City law, as it happens, has something to say: “the city’s Department of Investigation must be notified” if an official is arrested in the city (not clear by whom), but this did not come into play here since arrest was in DC. The article reports a debate within the mayor’s team about the matter with the mayor saying that Goldsmith should get to decide how much to reveal. And after the fact Goldsmith, who took some heat for not indicating in his resignation announcement what the reason was, has “admitted” that HE had a responsibility to be more forthcoming at the time, though he added that he thought that immediacy of his resignation “mooted the need for further explanation.”

So, does the mayor’s official role and its informational obligations trump the social obligation to allow another “ownership” of his own announcement?   Does the consequential outcome — resignation — obviate the obligation to notify (for the record, Goldsmith says he was wrong on that count). If there is public outrage based only/mainly on the relational expectation of “we should have been told,” does it support sanctions? Does Bloomberg’s citation of a norm that certain personal situations are one’s own to disclose get him off the hook? Does affirmatively suggesting other reasons rather than simply failing to disclose the actual ones cross another line entirely?

Bottom line: in many locations within the social, institutional, moral orders, the import of information behaviors goes far beyond the instrumental, consequential, substantive realm.

* The case is not being pursued as Mr. Goldsmith’s wife dropped the complaint.

Notification and Disclosure

Sooner or later, the analysis of notification leads to a consideration of disclosure. The two terms blend into one another in dictionary and thesaurus but we can make a useful distinction (useful, that is, for sociology of information purposes).

To notify is to inform or make known to a particular notifyee (it can be a large number of people — even “the public”). To disclose, though, is to release information without a target recipient. Again, the point here is not whether this distinction covers all the empirical usages of these words; rather, the point is to zero in on a useful distinction. For us, that distinction is whether the teller is telling because of a specific relational obligation to an identifiable other or whether the telling is more a revelation for all to see.

A further analysis of this will come up in a still to be written chapter on notification and the public sphere. I was motivated to think about it today, though, while reading an article in the paper about a new disclosure law (“Note to Civic-Minded – Prepare to Reveal Riches” by Alison Leigh Cowan) being discussed in New York by the city’s Conflict of Interest Board. At issue is whether volunteer members of civic boards should be required to disclose financial interests and the like.

The case brings up a lot of interesting sociology of information issues. The whole thing falls under the “information order” category as it concerns the social regulation of who gets to know what. The arguments for and against the measure (and the articles (perhaps even more interestingly) which boards will be subject to the regulation and which ones not) will be fascinating. What does the public deserve to know? What do (wealthy) people get to hide? What do we make of the way engaging with “the system” changes one’s informational environment (the same thing has come up recently in discussions about the private lives and backgrounds of politicians in connection with Governor Palin’s nomination)? How do we think differently about legislated disclosure and media snooping?  How do privacy and a public “right to know” intersect?  Etc.

The article suggests that “Albany passed the law because of a sense that public authorities…were operating off the radar screen.” We note in passing that it’s interesting that information about members was seen as a way to improve oversight of what boards DO. Another source added “What they’re saying here is you got to fill out disclosure forms if you’re an alter ego for government.” This resonates with something Gillian Hadfield and I have written about under the heading “democracy and the information order”: a part of our experience of the generic equality we are promised in a democracy is the expectation that under certain circumstances you don’t get to say to me “I don’t have to tell you.” The regulations ARE designed to ferret out actual material conflicts of interest, but to the degree that they “feel right” it would seem to be a manifestation of the principle that of those who are, or would be, public servants can be more powerful and wealthier than the average Joe but they don’t get to say “I’m not telling you.”

Somewhat predictably, this is exactly the sticking point. The city council is considering toning down the regulation so it requires only a short form that demands only limited information. The article quotes a former public board member who had experience filling out the current 32 page disclosure form:

“It takes a long time to complete and do a careful job, and it is a complete undressing,” he said. “I can tell you,” he said, referring to the slew of billionaires who sit on the Central Park board, “the members of that board would jump out of their skins if forced to file those forms.”

I think this suggests something interesting about social stratification and the sociology of information. Stay tuned.