Hugh Reynolds: Charter chatter

Hugh Reynolds.

It has been said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. The Ulster County Charter Review Commission’s execu-centric recommendations could pass by one or two percentage points in extremely light voting come November, like the original charter did six years ago. Or it may not. My call on what will be just a handful of revisions is that it’s likely the changes will be dead on arrival.

The composition of the Charter Review Commission is dictated by the charter itself. It has 11 members, an unwieldy number to begin with. Five are appointed by the county executive and three each by the minority and majority leaders of the legislature. On paper, this looks like legislature six, executive five. In reality, with three Democratic legislative members inclined to vote County Executive Mike Hein’s way, it’s executive eight, legislature three. I exaggerate to say George Armstrong Custer faced those kinds of odds. Actually, the Man in the Arrow Shirt was outnumbered by about nine to one.

This admittedly hard-working gaggle of citizens overlooked or chose to ignore that the main concern with charter government six years ago had been the fear that the executive would have too much power. Operating as though history had started with them, the review commission went and recommended even more power for the executive.

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For sure, there were sound reasons for a strong executive at the time the charter was drawn. The county was in the final throes of a jail crisis which had seen a dysfunctional, inept legislature botch the jail construction job to the tune of some $25 million over budget. In the end, nobody was held accountable because under the arcane rules of legislative government investigators couldn’t lay a finger on anybody. Or so the record shows.

The fundamental idea of charter revision was putting a strong man (or woman) in control of county government, tempered with strong legislative oversight and policy-making authority.

The Charter Review Commission’s task was to assess how county government might be improved. Toward that end, it has been meeting weekly for at least two hours each session since last September. Just about every department head has been interviewed, including Hein. His recommendations — was I surprised? — were for even greater executive power. Given the numbers, the Hein commission, as it may come to be known to history, was willing to comply.

I would not presume to offer a comprehensive review of county government under the charter, despite having covered it on an almost daily basis. I did that at a symposium last winter and nobody paid attention. Such judgments are more properly rendered by think-tank eggheads like Jerry Benjamin of New Paltz, the father of the charter.

But some things are apparent. The executive has been more powerful than the charter framers might have intended in large part because the legislature has been less powerful. Like any good practicing politician, Mike Hein filled a vacuum.

For instance, legislators, right up until the 11th hour, could have dictated how the nursing-home controversy could have been resolved. Confused and divided, some of them facing close elections, they dawdled. Hein, with most of his ducks lined up, stepped in and took control.

Legislators are now coming to appreciate that they have always had the power to contain the executive. They need only to use it.

As for charter revision, this commission — predictably — has been barking up the wrong tree. The executive has all the power necessary, but needs to be way more accountable. Self-serving press releases are no substitute for transparent government. For instance, I’ve been trying for a month to get a simple answer to this question: The executive announced in his state of the county address that he intended to sell 70 county properties. Can we (the press) have a list? Silence.

Dare Thompson, president of the League of Women Voters and one of the demonstrably impartial speakers at last week’s public hearing on proposed revisions to the charter, was preaching to the choir when she observed that “charters aren’t sexy.” But they are important. Charters are the fundamental rules of governance, the rules we live by. We need to pay close attention.

Here and there

Republican George Amedore has made official what was long decided with the formal announcement of his candidacy in the new 46th State Senate District last week. But what about local Democrats?

Statistically, Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in this district, and Ulsteris a major player. There has been some talk of the Parete brothers, either county legislators Rob or Rich (but not both) running for state senate. Amedore, a two-term assemblyman from Montgomery County, can probably secure the Conservative nomination, what with his close connection to Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. I hear theIndependence nomination might at this point be up for grabs. Party nominating conventions are scheduled for late May and early June.

It would appear the over-publicized “shared-services” tourism agreement between the county and Kingstonis finally a done deal. In announcing the concept in January, executive Hein and Mayor Shayne Gallo made the rather arrogant tactical mistake of ignoring their respective legislative bodies. With ruffled feathers smoothed, the deal was finalized, with city approval last week.

Incidentally, the “player to be named later” (to a county job by Hein) has, I’m advised, been named. Sources say former Kingstontourism director Katie Cook recently started as a systems analyst at the Department of Social Services. The administration, however, does not respond to “personnel” questions.

Slideshow image: Congressional hopeful Joel Tyner hangs out in Uptown Kingston. (Photo by Dan Barton)

There are 2 comments

  1. gberke

    What is the nature of the power that Hugh talks about? I don’t expect something on the level of The Power Broker (Robert Caro’s study on the power of Robert Moses) but do point to the processes and laws that supposedly yield power to an strong executive… there is a structural difference between executive and legislative… within that, personalities play a huge role. Consider, for instance the strong mayor system in Kingston and we have a petulant Hoffay with a suitable number of sheep to override good, thoughtful moves by the mayor.

  2. nopolitics

    A petulent Tin Man, a sassy female Cowardly Lion, and a poor Scarecrow in the background trying to stuff the hay back into his shirt!! Pay no attention to that council president behind the curtain!!
    On a positive note….”it’s early yet”….but we may just be better off going back to Kansas!

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