‘How the Sausage is Made’ Integral to Information Flow in Democracy


The last thing Phil Murphy should be worrying about is who’s telling the public what’s going on.

Yet, in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, that seems to be the case. He’s hardly unique. It’s not unusual for elected officials of all political stripes to use a crisis to clamp down on information.

The governor at one of his daily briefings last week complained about “leaks” and how he has no time for those who disclose “some sense of how the sausage is made.”

The governor often uses cliches, so he probably didn’t give this one much thought.

The phrase about “sausage being made” traditionally is used to describe the messy way legislation develops. Now, that messy way often includes various political deals and trade-offs. Or in other words, details some members of the public would like to know.

The comment at hand dealt with a developing controversy about “leaks,” – a term old-timers will recall as coming out of the Nixon White House – involving the state Health Department. Both the Star-Ledger and Bergen Record have reported on this.

It surfaced last week that Chris Neuwirth, an assistant commissioner in the state Health Department, was fired primarily because he had a second job as a consultant.

But further reports say he and perhaps other officials in the department are being investigated for leaking information. The governor declined to specifically discuss this last week, noting that people are always coming and going and that the state has 64,000 employees. O.K., but how many of them have key jobs in the health department in the middle of a pandemic?

Any discontent in the health department can be disconcerting considering the pandemic and the fact the governor effusively praises Commissioner Judith Persichilli every day as “the woman who needs no introduction.” On balance, Murphy has been transparent during this crisis. He holds press briefings five days a week – he recently stopped holding one on Saturday.

He patiently allows reporters to ask multiple questions, keeps track of them, and addresses every one. Early in the crisis, the governor even answered questions from a gun-rights representative who Murphy said lacked official state press credentials.

So, why make such a big deal over so-called leaks? This is presumably information related to COVID-19, not a CIA plot to overthrow a foreign government.

And it happens in government all the time. Murphy really does have bigger concerns. Unfortunately, this is not the only instance since the pandemic began where we see state officials seeking to limit the release of information. Back more than two months ago, a key part of the state’s Open Public Records Act was suspended, essentially allowing all levels of government not to respond to records requests during a state of emergency.

The average guy or gal may not care about what is called “OPRA,” in a vacuum, but they may like hearing about the info OPRA provides. This would be such things as how public money is spent and who gets patronage jobs.

Or put another way, they may enjoy eating the sausage.

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