City Hall Legislating in the Shadows

Published November 5, 2013

Is Mayor Bloomberg so devoted to his public-health drive that he’s willing to break the law?

“Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made,” the German statesman Otto von Bismarck famously noted. Now Bloomberg stands accused of not letting the public see how his team made various nanny-state laws and regulations from his (failed) soda ban to his rules against donating food to city-run homeless shelters.

A consumer group, Keep Food Legal, last week sued the Bloomberg administration for allegedly failing to comply with a series of Freedom of Information Law requests going back more than a year. These sought documents from the Mayor’s Office and the Health Department touching on which groups, individuals and outside agencies helped develop the city’s most restrictive food laws and regulations — from the mandatory calorie counts on menu boards to the trans-fat ban, as well as reportedly pending proposals to restrict salt in restaurants and limit happy hours.

The Health Department belatedly offered to provide some information, but the Mayor’s Office completely failed to comply with requests. Yet the state Freedom of Information Law allows only very narrow exemptions to requests like Keep Food Legal’s.

Maybe City Hall feels burned by its 2010 experience, when the Health Department complied with a New York Times FOIL request about a controversial ad campaign meant to support the mayor’s soda tax.

That campaign used public money for posters directly linking sugar consumption to weight gain — a claim the FOIL showed that the department’s own top nutritionist had debunked.

When it comes to the science, “the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd,” Health Department scientists warned in the memo obtained by the Times.

Cathy Nonas, the chief nutritionist, warned if the ads contained such a claim, scientists “will make mincemeat of us.”

Are these the sausages the mayor doesn’t want you to see being made?

This is precisely the type of scrutiny Freedom of Information laws are meant to foster.

The issue here isn’t so much why the nanny-state policies are bad, but rather how the city, particularly when it comes to food policy, operates secretly — and possibly under the shadowy influence of activist groups like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and liberal academics such as NYU’s Marion Nestle.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, about developing policies recommended by outside groups, but the public has a right to know about it. Imagine the furor if the Health Department were collaborating with McDonalds or Coca-Cola and using public dollars to promote their claims — all in secret. The outrage would be palpable, and justified.

Transparent policy-making is important so that the public can see how our laws are made. That scrutiny is valid, be it from regular citizens, left-wing food police or pro-freedom consumer groups such as Keep Food Legal.

When Bloomberg finally leaves City Hall, a new administration could be emboldened by the lack of transparency this one got away with. Keep Food Legal’s action, if successful, will send a message to the next administration: You’re free to listen to the most radical outside advisers — but you can’t do it in secret.

[Originally published on the New York Post]