Free Speech Week wraps up with recognition of most accessible public official
MEXICO — It’s not easy being an elected official.
You’re on duty effectively around the clock, no decision you make pleases everybody and the negatives of your performance are amplified far more than your successes are celebrated.
When reporters from The Palladium-Times contact our government officials, they’re often greeted with a variety of less-than-ideal responses, from cordial dismissal to feigned ignorance to a gaping chasm of silence.
Oswego County Clerk Michael Backus — unfailingly responsive, respectful and keenly aware of the crucial role of a free press — is different and is our inaugural Friend of the First Amendment award winner.
“When I am asked a question, I supply an answer,” Backus said in an interview this week with The Palladium-Times. “When asked for clarification, I try to clarify. When pressed further, I attempt to understand where the disconnect exists and where possible show the journalist where I am coming from…on the record as much as possible.”
A Mexico native, Backus’ enlightened opinion and actions are informed by his deep background in publishing: the Backus family business, since his great-grandfather, has been newspapers and periodicals.
Growing up, Backus recalls eager Sunday mornings with his father and tearing apart the sections with his brother.
“We’d listen to our dad read aloud the parts of the paper we’d skipped in favor of the sports section or comics,” Backus said. “He’d show us how big the world was through the ink transposed on his fingers as he turned each page. Growing up in a small town, this was a window for my brother and I at a young age to understand that there was a world beyond Oswego County.”
While his family has since divested their publishing interests, Backus says it’s impossible to undo what an upbringing immersed in newspapers has instilled.
“Newspapers are reflections of their communities and there are conservative ones, liberal ones, and those that try to live in-between our blue versus red political culture,” Backus said. “Same goes for journalists and if I can share anything that I’ve learned in my life, it’s that it is essential that we disagree and challenge one another.”
That disagreement, he maintains, is fundamental.
“I’ve disagreed and argued with journalists, copy writers, editors, even publishers,” Backus said. “When I’ve disagreed, I’ve presented my case and backed it up with as much evidentiary proof as possible. Sometimes those folks have issued corrections, written editorials clarifying opinions, and in some circumstances challenged preconceived notions of those in their employ. That’s all part of the First Amendment and why I am so honored to receive this award.”
When it comes to answers, Backus is a font of insight on local topics ranging from sales tax revenue to DMV lines to the often-intimidating layers of bureaucracy that surround so many important transactions and policies of public interest.
With a perfect score of zero Freedom of Information Law requests denied, Michael Backus is our — and your — Friend of the First.
Oswego County Clerk Michael Backus
- Graduate of Mexico Academy, Le Moyne College, Norwich Mil. University (MPA)
- Started career with U.S. Rep. and Army Secretary John McHugh
- Elected 2012, took office as youngest clerk in New York at 29. Ran unopposed in 2016
- Board Chair, ConnextCare. Board Member, Oswego Health, Oswego County Community Foundation
- Backus and wife Andrea reside in Mexico with their two children