Every now and then a legislature stumbles onto an issue that really turns constituents on, and boy, then it hits the fan! That’s what happened last week at the Ulster County Legislature.
Last year anti-fracking forces packed the Senate Gym at UlsterCountyCommunity College. Now gun control has taken the stage. It would appear the legislature lost the handle on this one from the first shot.
On the table — actually, off the table — at last week’s legislature session was an innocuous memorializing resolution that asked the president and Congress to do something about gun control in this country. In fact, the resolution, submitted by Democrats Don Gregorius of Woodstock and Dave Donaldson of Kingston to the legislature’s law enforcement committee on Jan. 8, was not even scheduled to be considered at the regular Jan. 22 meeting. Committee Chairman Rich Parete of Accord said any action by the legislature demanded an opportunity for public input.
Man, he got that right!
Mostly via the Internet and word of mouth, the rumor got around that the legislature was planning to pass a resolution on gun control. Upward of 200 angry, suspicious, resentful gun-rights advocates jammed the meeting.
Of what must have been a record 50 speakers, 45 addressed the subjects of gun control, constitutional rights and government interference with the legitimate rights of sportsmen. Not a single speaker spoke in behalf of gun control. I think if anybody had, there might have been fistfights. People were that torqued.
The consensus was that gun mayhem, as terrifying and reprehensible as it is, is almost entirely the product of deranged individuals.
In that belief, Ulster’s new Republican congressman, Chris Gibson, is on the same page. Gibson, a retired Army colonel who says he owns a couple of rifles and occasionally hunts, maintains there are sufficient laws on the books to control guns, and that the issues are more about mental health and public safety.
If legislators didn’t get the message that this is one helluva hot-button issue, something like 400 pro-gunners showed up at a firehouse breakfast in Accord last Sunday, where Gibson spoke.
This not to say there aren’t a few county legislators who might if given the opportunity cast their votes for gun control on the federal level. Donaldson, who apparently believes he’s in a bullet-proof seat, said he was prepared to vote for his own legislation. Gregorius, questioned a few days later, had a few more questions.
The drama had next been scheduled to move to a bigger stage. But late word is that Donaldson and Gregorius have pulled their resolution, satisfied, according to Gregorius that the federal government was in the process of doing something. No need for extra chairs and serious security.
Though there will be much fire and brimstone, my guess is the legislature, facing re-election in November, will let this cup pass.
I’m calculating that around 80 individuals have served as Ulster County legislators since its first session in January 1968. (The 45th anniversary was observed at last week’s regular monthly meeting.) There were 33 members of the legislature until the charter reduced the number to 23. My estimate of overall membership is based on an assumed attrition rate of ten percent a year from death, defeat or retirement, and includes the 14 from the Class of 2009 who departed with downsizing.
Some elections were more volatile than others. Democrats cleaned house after a decade of Republican dominance in 1977 to take their only majority until 2005. Republicans stormed back in 1979 and ruled uninterruptedly for more than two decades.
There have been all kinds of characters over the years, but the ones who got their portraits on the wall in legislative chambers, called the rogues’ gallery by some irreverent reporters, were the chairmen. There were a dozen over a 44-year period. Unlucky or not, Terry Bernardo, the first woman to wield the gavel, is the 13th.
The political brain behind the creation of the legislature was Pete Savago, a New Paltz insurance broker and the last chairman of the board of supervisors. The old board, which dated from colonial times, contained 20 town supervisors and supervisors from each of Kingston’s 13 wards. In Kingston, the board of supervisors was known as a political retirement home. With a 1967 budget of maybe $15 million and department heads running things, there really wasn’t much for them to do.
The board of supervisors was inherently undemocratic. The supervisor from Denning, with perhaps 300 constituents, had the same vote as the supervisor from Saugerties with upwards of 15,000. The county was forced under the one man-one vote Supreme Court ruling to reapportion.
Savago’s genius, and I’d never say this to his face since he can’t take a compliment, was in keeping the number of (new) legislators at 33. There was no better time to downsize government, but Republicans had drawn the new districts and enjoyed an enrollment advantage countywide. Savago, his first priority being jobs for his people, figured on taking at least 25 seats. No doubt the other side thought they could take a dozen, but in fact, that first legislature boasted a 28-5 Republican majority. The GOP never had fewer than 24 until Democrats started surging in the mid-‘70s.
It has become fashionable in the age of county executive government to demean the old legislature as myopic, dysfunctional, parochial and ineffective. Hey, nobody’s perfect.
In days of yore, committees of part-time legislators could handle budgets of $20 million or $50 million. When it got to $100 million in 1981, they set up the county administrator system, which worked until it didn’t work any more. When spending topped $300 million, charter change produced the county-executive system.