Robert “Bob” Turner is a professor of political science at Skidmore College. He was also the chair of the city’s previous Charter Review Commission.
In an era in which facts are treated with careless indifference and in which spin and hyperbole have replaced measured pronouncements, it is especially dismaying to read Professor Turner’s remarks to area newspapers. His most recent misstatements came after his second FOIL request for images of the ballots cast in last November’s charter vote was rejected.
In recent editions of the Gazette, the Saratogian, and the Times Union newspapers Professor Turner makes reckless attacks on the two Saratoga County Election Commissioners. Rather than enhancing public dialogue and providing insight into an important issue, he presents erroneous information and creates a poisonous atmosphere that is not helpful in trying to understand the controversy.
Professor Turner wrongly accuses the Commissioners of the Board of Elections William Fruci (Democrat) and Roger Scheira (Republican) of obstructing his FOIL request. He is quoted in the Saratogian as saying, “By refusing to follow the Court’s decision in Kosmider, the Republican and Democratic appointed Commissioners of Elections, Roger Scheira and William Fruci, are undermining the public’s confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.” He told the Gazette, “…I’m not going to let a couple of local political appointees deny the public what’s theirs.” And “The Republican and Democratic county election commissioners can’t even bother to articulate some sort of rationale and reason that the ballots shouldn’t be open to the public.”
The problem is that neither of these men had anything to do with the denial of Turner’s FOIL request.A simple question to put to Turner would be, exactly what evidence did he have that it was the Election Commissioners who thwarted him? The only document he possesses is a letter signed by the county’s FOIL officer denying his FOIL request.
After reading Professor Turner’s comments I called Bill Fruci, the Democratic Election Commissioner, whom I have known for decades and asked him about his role in this controversy. He explained to me that he was never consulted regarding Professor Turner’s FOIL request.
This was hardly a surprise. Decisions regarding FOIL requests are decided by an institution’s FOIL officer. The FOIL officer is required to make a determination by testing the request against a set of legal standards of what is accessible. My experience leads me to believe that in addition to the county’s FOIL officer, the decision was probably made by the County Attorney, James Dorsey. I emphasize probably because I have no way of confirming my suspicions.
Then there is the problem of Turner’s operatic characterization of the controversy.
Professor Turner asserts that the denial of his FOIL undermines “…the public’s confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.” In a statement reminiscent of a certain President he asks, “Why not show the public the ballots? If the election was run properly, there is nothing to hide.”
So Professor Turner not too subtly suggests to the readers of the newspapers that there has been some sort of conspiracy (organized by the two Elections Commissioners) to subvert the election.
Can Professor Turner really be serious? Remember, when he thought his Commission’s charter would prevail and that the City Council was trying to somehow block the process, he was quoted in the area papers lauding the virtues of the Board of Elections.
In fact, I for one do not believe that our democracy is put into jeopardy by Professor Turner’s recent FOIL denial. The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division Third Judicial Department has recently ruled that digital ballots are FOILable. The decision is under appeal. I am cautiously optimistic that the New York State Court of Appeals will support the lower court decision and resolve the matter.
The denial of Professor Turner’s FOIL is hardly the threat he would have us believe. Our democracy is threatened. Dark money, suppression of voters, and gerrymandering are real threats that deserve our alarm not the denial of Dr. Turner’s FOIL.
I can tell you from experience that no matter what the FOIL request is, the inclination of institutions is to deny requests if the standards make that at all possible. I myself have had the experience of having FOIL requests I thought were unfairly denied but lacking the money to challenge the decisions in court had to simply accept the decisions.
I actually agree with Professor Turner that the public should have access to the electronic images of the ballots he requested. Where I strenuously part company with him is on who was responsible and where he should have directed his gratuitous criticism and on the magnitude of the impact his FOIL denial will have on our democracy.
In spite of his profession as a political scientist, Professor Turner has a history of not being burdened by the need for proof when he talks to the area papers. Professor Turner has wrongly publically pilloried Mr. Fruci and Mr. Scheira. He owes them an apology.