NYC Must Release Review of 911 System, Judge Says

NEW YORK — New York City must release a consultant's review of the city's 911 system and emergency response times that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has been fighting to keep private, a civil court judge decided Monday.
by | April 10, 2012

NEW YORK — New York City must release a consultant's review of the city's 911 system and emergency response times that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has been fighting to keep private, a civil court judge decided Monday.

Saying his decision stemmed from a belief in open government and transparency, Supreme Court Justice Arthur F. Engoron said that the taxpayer-funded consultant's report and all its drafts belong to the people of New York City.

"The city's not the only interest group here. And the city's not infallible," Engoron said after comparing the city's claim that the report should be private to President Richard Nixon's claims of executive privilege during the Watergate scandal.

Lawyers for the city had argued that the review, commissioned after a massive blizzard in December 2010 that stranded ambulances and backed up the emergency call system, is still in draft form. They claimed that an order to release the documents could have a chilling effect on city employees, who might become reluctant to freely express their opinions.

"If policymakers felt they could not give or receive blunt or candid feedback without it being publicized, the entire public would be at a detriment," said city lawyer Gail Mulligan.

But the judge sided with lawyers for unions representing city firefighters, who argued that it was in the interest of their clients — and of the public — to learn about any problems with the 911 system that could be delaying response times and putting lives at risk.

"They could label this a draft in perpetuity," said Joshua Zuckerberg, a lawyer for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "It's a cover up ... plain and simple."

Kate O'Brien Ahlers, a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department, said the city was very disappointed with the ruling and would consider appealing. Last week, Bloomberg questioned whether the current version of the report was accurate. City officials had said they planned to make the final version of the report public soon.

The mayor argued Monday that the ruling set a dangerous precedent.

"I don't know how any government would be able to function if you had to put out every single paper, even at the beginning of a study and all through the study," he said. "If the courts say you have to publish this, you have to publish everything."

Under the judge's decision, the documents must be released within seven days to the unions, which may then decide whether to submit them into evidence during a public arbitration hearing scheduled for April 20. There is no mandate forcing the Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association to make the documents publicly available, and the unions' lawyers on Monday stopped short of promising to do so.

The unions contend that the city's recent overhaul of the 911 system has led to delays that have been concealed by a change in how the city calculates its fire response times. Administration officials say the overhaul has modernized an out-of-date system and eliminated inefficiencies, improving response times.

At the center of the dispute is the fire department's average response time to structural fires, which dropped 6 seconds in fiscal year 2010, shortly after the city changed its emergency dispatch procedures. Under the new system, 911 operators collect more information before starting the response-time clock. City officials testified they had never tracked how long callers are on the line before the clock begins, leading critics to question the validity of the city's numbers.

Bloomberg announced plans to overhaul the city's decades-old 911 system following a blackout in 2003 that largely immobilized the city.

Last month, the city's comptroller issued an audit criticizing the city for its handling of the project, saying it was $1 billion over-budget and seven years behind schedule. Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway attacked the report as misleading, disputing the figures and arguing that most of the cost increase was due to a strategic decision to build a backup call center from the ground up.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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