Mayor Eric Adams on Monday signed a sweeping executive order designed to make the city more accountable and boost government transparency, including a requirement that all city agencies appoint a monitor to ensure that such practices are followed.
The order also states that agencies must “provide detailed information about its policies, practices, and activities in publicly accessible ways.”
Although freedom of speech and the press are protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment, Adams cited the NYPD’s treatment of reporters during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement as one example of why he wanted to further enshrine those rights.
“We saw members of the press who were arrested, who were harassed, who were not allowed to cover the story, even those who were wearing press passes,” he told reporters. “So it's one thing to have something in writing, it's another thing to make sure that all of the agencies that are involved in protecting that authority and right are carrying out their jobs.”
The executive order, which came at the recommendation of an independent commission of social justice advocates, broadly orders the city to adhere to First Amendment rights, including requiring agency heads to appoint a staff member to review their policies and practices on a regular basis to see if there are any obstacles to the public’s rights.
But such a rule could prove challenging to enforce among the city’s roughly 141 agencies, and Adams has himself faced questions of transparency from reporters. He signed the order on the same day he deflected inquires into his diet, after a POLITICO story reported a waiter at Midtown restaurant saying the mayor frequently orders fish. The mayor has repeatedly touted his vegan lifestyle, describing it as the crux of a health transformation that he said saved him from blindness and nerve damage related to type II diabetes.
When asked about the story Monday, the mayor dodged.
“I’m not going down this rabbit hole of what do you eat,” he said, accusing the press of being the “food police.”
The executive order also notably omits a reference to the state Freedom of Information Law, which the version drafted by the commission had included.
Under the 1974 state law, New Yorkers can request a trove of data from state and city agencies, but agencies have been known to carve out restrictions or impose delays. It is also not uncommon for agencies to take months or even years to comply.
But during Monday's press conference, Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney and staunch defender of freedom of speech who helped author the commission’s report and the executive order, called Monday’s action “historic,” saying that he believed it was the first of its kind in the country.
“I've been in so many demonstrations over the years,” he said. “And even though the First Amendment is good language, that doesn't mean it's implemented.”
As an example of the city’s failure to come through on FOIL requests, Siegel spoke of his attempt in January 2021 to get vaccination data. Ironically, his effort came at the request of Adams, who was Brooklyn borough president at the time and wanted to know if the city was providing equitable access to vaccines.
Siegel said he was initially informed by the city’s public hospital system, known as Health and Hospitals, that the pandemic had created a backlog of FOIL requests. According to him, the de Blasio administration delayed his request a total of four times. He added that he has still not received the information.
A spokesperson for Adams referred questions about the FOIL request to H+H. A spokesperson for the city’s Health and Hospitals system did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Asked why New Yorkers should expect city agencies to be more responsive now, Siegel said he expected deputy mayors to enforce the executive order, but ultimately the burden would lie with Adams.
“If you're not responsive, you know where I go. I go to this man,” he said, pointing to the mayor.
Siegel has been a longtime friend and adviser to the mayor. He served as Adams’s lawyer in 2006 when the police department threatened to fire him after he spoke about NYPD practices in an unauthorized television interview. After an internal trial, he was found guilty on only one of three charges—speaking publicly without department permission, which resulted in the loss of 15 vacation days.
But Adams on Monday said he fully expects Siegel to hold him accountable.
“Not only is he a friend, but he has been a trusted adviser,” he said. “But let's be clear: Norman will sue me in a New York minute.”
Siegel and the commission have laid out a lengthy agenda of social justice reforms in the 77-page report that was released Monday. Their list of progressive recommendations are ambitious but also familiar — from instituting a city residency requirement for NYPD officers to shutting down Rikers and building community-based jails, to establishing a hotline dedicated to tenants who experience a lack of heat in city apartments.
All told, Monday’s executive order represented only one of 81 recommendations the group made to the mayor.
After the press conference, Siegel said he wanted to give Adams time to absorb the report. But the attorney, who began his career in the late 1960s working on Black civil rights issues in the South, also acknowledged that he and others have been advocating for many of these reforms for decades.
“Rhetoric doesn't cut it anymore,” he said. “As far as I'm concerned, I want action. I want people to recognize that you can’t have a fair city without both safety and social justice.”
Monday’s executive order, “better not be symbolic" Siegel said, warning, "If they’re not fulfilling the executive order, we can go to court and enforce it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized how the executive order related to the state's Freedom of Information Law.