Perhaps the most enduring tradition in government holds that when it’s necessary to announce unwelcome or embarrassing news, it’s best to do it late on a Friday afternoon — ideally at the start of a three-day holiday weekend — in the belief it will be seen or heard by a fraction of the audience it might normally attract in the middle of the workweek.
While the practice might not date quite as far back as the dawn of the Republic, it’s been followed for years by presidents, governors, mayors, and anyone else in elected office that cling tenaciously to the theory that people are preoccupied with weekend or holiday activities and gloss over news about politics and government or ignore it altogether.
Despite the persistent use of the late Friday afternoon ploy, in reality it doesn’t fool anyone anymore. Indeed, it’s become counterproductive, as was apparent with the recent simultaneous vetoes by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Chris Christie of legislation adopted unanimously by the legislatures in the two states to reform the operational procedures of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The vetoes were announced on the Saturday immediately preceding the week leading into the Christmas holiday, along with a statement from the two chief executives that they preferred the recommendations submitted by a panel of consultants rather than the provisions of the legislation.
The ferocity of the criticism of the specifics of the competing proposals
was matched by the intensity of those who accused both governors of conspiring to suppress the news by timing its release on the preholiday weekend.
The reaction to the circumstances surrounding the announcement drew heightened attention, feeding the conspiracy theories that it was a deliberate attempt to hide or at least minimize the impact of their actions.
Rather than slipping the news past people preoccupied with holiday plans and activities, embracing the Friday afternoon tradition produced the opposite effect. The media — long accustomed to such efforts at manipulation and largely overlooking them — seized on the vetoes and gave the story greater exposure.
Reporters delved deeper into the recommendations of the consulting group and concluded that, rather than the genuine reforms necessary to correct and prevent abuses at the authority, they preserved the power of the two governors to access billions in funds and to continue to place supporters in patronage positions at the agency.
And the media hinted darkly, it was all carried out quietly and revealed only at a time when the two governors’ offices believed their actions would be obscured by the distractions of the holiday season. Public cynicism, it was suggested, was more than warranted.
While conflicting opinions were voiced over the proposed procedural reforms, many of which were the equivalent of “inside baseball” and too arcane to capture the public imagination, one recommendation stood out, easily understood and politically troubling for Christie — a reduction in service on the PATH commuter line between New Jersey and Manhattan, removing the system from authority jurisdiction and turning it over to a private operator.
The reaction was swift and damning. For Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who many believe is positioning himself for a run at the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017, the service cut and privatization proposals were a stunning political gift.
While acknowledging the reductions would affect only early-morning and weekend service when ridership is at a low point, Fulop sprang to the defense of the hundreds of thousands of PATH commuters from Hudson, Bergen, Essex, Passaic, and Union counties — large, vote-rich locales — and argued that mass transit should be enhanced rather than undercut.
He also sided with those who are convinced that “privatization” is a euphemism for “fare increase.” A private operator with a profit motive, when faced with operational losses, will look first to raising the cost to the consumer (the commuter) and then to cutbacks in service to tip the balance sheet in its favor.
Senate President and gubernatorial-candidate-in-waiting Steve Sweeney, whose South Jersey constituents are not PATH users, nonetheless recognized the political advantage Fulop had achieved as a result of the reduction and privatization proposals and, within two days, announced that he, too, opposed the idea. Other Hudson County leaders — including reliable Christie ally State Sen. Brian Stack — couldn’t wait to get to a microphone and in front of cameras to denounce the proposal.
Fulop, though, whose city and county would be impacted heavily should PATH service be curtailed, has the upper hand. He emerged as the leading opponent of the idea and one who can speak with greater authority and insight than can Sweeney on the economic consequences that would befall the region if commuter service is reduced.
The committee’s rationale for its recommendation was that eliminating trains in the overnight hours and weekends would affect fewer than 2 percent of the PATH ridership and save some $10 million.
Critics countered that those who worked night shifts in Manhattan would be left without transportation back to their homes in New Jersey and would suffer a considerable economic blow if forced to leave jobs because of an inability to get back and forth.
Moreover, they say a $10 million savings in an agency with a $26 billion budget is insignificant when viewed in the context of the personal hardship facing those forced to seek employment that did not require daily trips on the PATH system.
While Christie was handed a political controversy, Cuomo surrendered nothing of consequence. If, as is widely suspected, the product of the committee’s deliberations was a negotiation between the two governors or their representatives, Christie got snookered.
Cuomo’s constituents are not PATH users, and he emerged from the controversy unscathed while maintaining his grip on the authority.
Christie, on the other hand, will confront yet another potentially divisive issue while dealing with major, multibillion dollar matters like replenishing the Transportation Trust Fund and covering the growing shortfall in the public pension system.
As elected officials have grown fond of saying, public controversies should be viewed as “teachable moments.”
The principal lesson to be learned here is that it’s time — past time, actually — let go of tradition and toss the discredited Friday afternoon news release practice into history’s trash bin.