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.