The (March 29) meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee provided an exercise in political maneuvering and theater inside and outside the county office building. On one side there was the county executive and legislature chairman Fred Wadnola urging the committee (and the legislature) to get this thing voted on one way or the other by say, the May 17 meeting of the county legislature. On the other was the pushback from legislators all of a sudden responding to public opinion.
Golden Hill has become such a hot topic that even Kingston mayoral candidates, usually oblivious to county issues, were in the audience at the committee meeting. No wonder. With a $35-million budget and over 300 workers, Golden Hill is a major place of employment in the city.
The committee, under the temporary leadership of co-chairman Rob Parete of Accord, was not to be rushed. There were numerous questions to be addressed, legislators said. Why rush into something with a 20-year impact? Keep in mind that legislators have been kicking this can down the road since at least as far back as 2001.
County executive Mike Hein, to the dismay of many, takes no position on public-private ownership of the county nursing-home facilities in the future but repeatedly warns of the financial consequences of public ownership. Hein, in the view of some, attempted to stampede the committee by issuing a gloomy updated report on the day of its meeting which showed the county on the hook for tens of millions in subsidies over the next five years or so.
Outside the building more than 100 picketers with signs like “Don’t move my grandma,” “Honk if you support Golden Hill” and “This is our home” paraded in front of the county office building. A few, in advocating sale of the place, protested “greedy unions.” It was an orderly demonstration meant to send a clear signal to legislators: listen to us or pay the price in November.
Back at the legislature committee meeting, Parete, having been notified he was chairing the meeting only that afternoon — chairman Walter Frey called in sick — seemed at sea. With little notice and no agenda, Parete gave the floor to anyone who wanted it, including members of the audience and legislators who were not on the committee. It was an exercise in participatory democracy rarely seen in the legislature.
I wouldn’t bet next week’s pay on this, but it appears the pendulum has shifted from sell it quickly! to whoa! The administration can’t be happy with that.
As often happens, what happens at committee meetings pales in an aftermath of finger-pointing and accusation.
Returning to this subject, we find Frey’s blasting presumably boon companion Wadnola for overriding his decision as chairman to postpone the committee meeting scheduled almost a month earlier, questionable. On that point, Wadnola gets mixed reviews. Hell-bent on bringing this matter to an early vote, he nonetheless recognized that one sick legislator shouldn’t inconvenience six other (committee members) and the public at large. Then there’s the executive grousing over the committee’s alleged refusal to distribute his report on the financial consequences of keeping Golden Hill under county control and operation. Parete said he never saw it.
I detect a faint whiff of hypocrisy.
For Hein to accuse the legislature of suppressing information, information that has been in the public domain for months — Hein’s update only makes for a worst-case scenario — while steadfastly refusing to release basic information on one of two potential private infirmary operators, is almost ludicrous.
State office of open government director Bob Freeman said the rules allow a degree of confidentiality when negotiating requests for proposals, as in this case. But he wondered why such information wasn’t made available to the legislature, which has the responsibility of making a policy decision. Should that decision be to privatize Golden Hill, the county executive will decide who gets the contract.
Various legislators have groused about the secrecy surrounding this RFP process, but none have made real issues of it.
Enough. The legislature needs to rise up its hind legs, exercise its authority under the county charter, and demand all cards be placed on the table.
To render a decision of this magnitude with anything less would be grossly irresponsible.
I’ve attended every meeting of the county reapportionment committee but rarely heard the subject of weighted voting raised. Last week presiding officer Bill West presented fellow commissioners at the tail-end of an hour-long meeting with a “draft” of a plan to use weighted voting to redistrict the county.
Reactions among the four other commissioners in attendance — Mike Catalanotto of Saugerties and Paul Benkert of Lloyd were absent — ranged from WTF to annoyance.
West’s plan, which he said he came up with only a few days earlier — the commission has been meeting weekly since February — would give every town a resident legislator, with the exception of Denning, Hardenburgh and Kingston town. It could also allow the creation of districts in urban areas to form minority districts.
Weighted voting, as applied in counties, like nearby Columbia, which retained its board of supervisors, assigns legislators by proportional population. The city of Kingston, with almost 24,000 people, for instance, would get almost four times as many weighted votes as Rosendale with its 6000 people.
All well and good, except this is very late in this game, close to the top of the ninth. The legislature hopes to review final plans this month.
West’s tactics, akin to a late resolution in the legislature where he was once chairman, leave something to be desired in forcing commissioners to make a decision on a fundamental policy issue that should have been thoroughly reviewed months ago.
If there is an upside it’s that the commission has now at least looked at weighted voting, a factor in its favor should a final plan be challenged in court.
Meanwhile, a state judge’s decision that gives final redistricting authority to the legislature hardly surprised anyone. Despite the “intention” of the charter commission to render reapportionment non-political, the legislature never specifically relinquished its authority, the judge ruled. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions, but nothing beats something in writing.
In any event, thanks to Albany-based judge Kimberly O’Connor for rendering a swift decision (in only a week) on a relatively complex case where time was of the essence. She’ll retain jurisdiction throughout the case
Opposing lawyers Josh Koplovitz for the plaintiffs and county attorney Bea Havranek have tons of context. They go back decades in Democratic politics, and as a former county attorney, he used to be her boss.
I asked the learned Koplovitz whether there wasn’t a little of the grasshopper beating the master (Karate Kid) motif in Havranek besting him on the reapportionment case.
“She certainly is no grasshopper, and I’m no master,” he said, forgiving my reach. “We are loving adversaries, two good lawyers arguing our cases.”
Not to sound cynical, but the legislature prevailing strikes me as preordained, going all the way back to the charter commission’s conveniently leaving a critical issue open to interpretation when it could have nailed it down when the ball was in its court. Commission brain Gerry Benjamin, usually the smartest guy in the room, called it a mistake. Smart guys shouldn’t make those kinds of mistakes.
Here and there
Ran into Mojo Joe Roberti (he’s the wizard behind the anonymous Ulster County Mojo political blog) at an eatery in Saugerties on Sunday. Nice job of reapportionment analysis, I told him, speaking of a recent blog entry.
“What?” said the Saugerties town Republican chairman, looking somewhere between surprised, appreciative or guilty.
“On your blog,” I replied, stating the obvious and thinking a couple of political wonks might share a laugh or two about local politics.
“What blog?” he said.
The Lone Ranger never takes off his mask.
Coleman High School held its annual $10,000 fund-raising raffle at the Hurley Avenue campus on Sunday. Who should win a cruise but chief raffle salesperson Breda McMahon? The crowd, a large number of whom have bought their tickets for years from the indefatigable Breda, roared its approval.
Then there was the dead guy in the upstate village of Manlius who decided an election by one vote last month. Arthur Ferguson, according to the AP, filed an absentee ballot but died three weeks before the election. A Supreme Court judge ruled that the ballot counted since it wasn’t challenged before it was removed from its sealed envelope by election officials.
I think the judge got it right for the wrong reason. Arthur was alive when he cast his ballot, unlike acres of dead voters in Chicago.
According to the Onondaga county board of elections, a total of 471 votes were cast for the two positions in question. Ferguson can rest in peace — any one of them influenced the outcome.++
Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.