A product of one of those good-government ideas that occasionally gets adopted, the commission was to serve two purposes under the 2006 charter: reduce the legislature by ten members to 23, which the public loved, and reapportion the legislature, which the public, it would seem, barely understood and cared less..
The idea was certainly high-minded, and to a certain extent has been achieved. Certainly, a citizens’ commission with no self-interest deliberating in public had to be better than a coven of politicians meeting in secret with the dual intent of preserving their districts — picking your constituents, it’s called — and screwing their opponents.
So Simon-pure was this unique concept that it was held up as a model for reapportionment. So far, nobody that I know of is beating down Ulster’s doors for a copy of the charter. Rather, Dutchess County, which adopted a similar concept a few years ago, reversed itself and handed the job back to the (Republican) majority of the legislature. Self-interest is a tough habit to break, it would seem.
Ulster’s seven-member commission was determined by charter from a list of some 90 volunteers. The majority and minority leaders of the legislature appointed two people — presumably their people — after which those four appointed the other three. Non-enrolled Richard (Dickie to his friends) Messina and for the record again, no cousin of legislator Rich Gerentine of Marlborough, was the seventh. Once presumed to be the tie-breaker and maybe even the chairman, Messina proved to be neither. He was one of the several honest brokers on the commission who called ’em the way they he saw ’em, however.
Hanging over the commission from the onset was the critical question — left deliciously or maliciously obscure in the charter — as to who would have the last word on reapportionment, the commissioners or the legislature. A Supreme Court judge in April determined that for lack of any definitive language the last word was the legislature’s.
This decision abruptly changed the dynamic of the commission. Where before it was operating on the assumption that the map was it’s to make, the commission now had to appease at least 17 legislators in order to get a plan approved. This is not to say the commission sold out to the politicians, as has been alleged by both sides. It hasn’t. But the endgame may be different now.
Originally, the commission planned to go strictly by the numbers, divide 23 districts into 183,000 people, try to keep town borders intact (unlike the politicos who drew up the present plan in 2003), and let the chips fall where they might.
If some legislators wound up in primaries or running one-on-one against a powerful opponent, well, too darned bad. This plan, like others, wasn’t about protecting legislators.
Along the way the commission did something smart. Members visited town-board meetings for input from elected officials and others.
From my vantage point of watching legislators deal mostly with county issues over the years, I found town tours a waste of time. I was wrong. This one wasn’t. The towns turned out to have a keen interest in legislative representation. Most were specific and adamant as to their needs and priorities.
Score one for the commission, which relied heavily on that input in making its maps. Understanding and addressing community issues became the commission’s second priority.
Last, but certainly not least, were the dealings with incumbent legislators which have played out over the last few weeks.
All of a sudden, as the deadline for plan approval loomed, county legislators who couldn’t even spell reapportionment were seen at every meeting, some of them attributing their own sinister motives to the commissioners.
Even the most dim-witted understood there had to be attrition. Thirty-three (the current legislature) doesn’t divide into 23, after all. Half a dozen were willing to take one for their teams, declaring they wouldn’t run in the new districts this fall. Another handful are leaning toward the door, but want to see a final map.
Bottom line, there will be at least 20 incumbents vying for election, some in primaries, in 23 districts. There will be some blood, but perhaps not that much.
Listening to the legislators
The commission, which started out on such high ground, was surprisingly receptive to the whinings and pleading of incumbent legislators. For the commission, such amounted to final tweaking of a plan broadly defined two weeks ago.
In Kingston, Dave Donaldson and Mike Madsen could face each other in their midtown district. Jeanette Provenzano and Peter Loughran are the only incumbents in their respective downtown and uptown districts.
Loughran, it would seem, was one of the last legislators to influence the commission, convincing to move boundary lines to avoid a primary between him and Donaldson.
In Saugerties, freshman Republican Walter Frey brought his considerable weight to bear in convincing the commission to move him out of a district with the unbeatable Dean Fabiano into a district with Bob Aiello. Aiello, who suspects political enemies under every rock, thinks the commission was out to get him. A tough, seasoned campaigner, Aiello should be able to handle anybody they throw at him.
Down south, an earlier plan pitted long-time Republican running mates Frank Felicello against Gerentine, an impossible situation for both. The latest plan has Felicello in the same district with feisty freshman Republican Mary Beth Maio. A standup sort, Maio has resisted Felicello’s suggestion that she withdraw for the good of the party — and Felicello. “I told him I had better legs and I plan ot use them,” she said.
It could be that (brutally) Frank will have to really campaign this fall and in territory that previously he had only driven through. Maio, a Lloyd resident, will face similar issues in Marlborough.
Former legislator Brian Cahill finds a town of Kingston-Ulster district a bit too red for his blood, but will have to deal with it. At the end, the commission was moving blocks of 100, 200 or 300 people around, not entire towns.
What happens when the legislature votes, probably on May 23, is anybody’s guess. It appears that only a few oxen have been gored. The level of their bellows notwithstanding, it will be difficult for the put upon to convince the safer majority to reject a reasonable plan and therefore restart the whole process or hand it to an Albany-based judge for a final decision.
And of course county executive Mike Hein’s all-or-nothing warning to the legislature has to be taken into account. Hein vows that if the legislature changes anything — anything — in the commission plan, he will veto it. Twenty-two votes are required to override a veto, meaning as a practical matter that an alternative to the commission plan would need to pass muster with at least that many legislators. Tall order.
In combination with Hein’s veto threat, the commission’s ability to deliver a unanimous recommendation, as it did this Monday night, will undercut the legislators’ ability to fiddle with the plan. Will they try?
Some distillation may be required before issuing judgment on the commission. Mistakes were made. The commission should have been more independent from the executive, which supplied staff. It had the ($50,000) budget, also under the control of the executive, to hire professional staff.
Filtering out the static from aggrieved legislators, it would seem this citizen panel, meeting in open weekly sessions for over three months — and not counting nights in far-flung town boards and weekends working individually or in small groups on plans — has made an honest effort in meeting its responsibility to produce a fair, responsible plan.
Working on deadline, I didn’t hang around for Saugerties horseman-developer Tom Struzzieri’s breakfast address to the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce last week, but from published reports it appeared he was aggrieved at the red tape encountered in building the Diamond Mills hotel and convention center now rising from the ground in the village of Saugerties.
To that, some observers would say “what!”
Given that other developers like Dean Gitter in Shandaken (1999) and Tom Perna (2002) at Kingston Landing have grown old and damned near died fighting government regulators and unrelenting critics, Diamond Mills made it through at warp speed. Maybe it was the Maurice Hinchey connection, but Struzzieri’s project went from concept to construction in something like two years. And he’s complaining?
Struzzieri and his companies may have been the best thing to come to Saugerties since the Cantine paper mill (site of Diamond Mills), and he’ll probably do more, but this kind of gratuitous griping is beyond the pale. ++
Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.