Few other than political wonks and the media pay much attention to the annual pronouncements on the state of county, town and city affairs. Coming from majority and minority leaders, it’s usually about hands-across-the-aisle, working together for the common good, kumbaya stuff.
Now and then, however, a pearl emerges, like when county legislature Minority Leader Dave Donaldson recently detailed, perhaps inadvertently, where the real power resides in Ulster County government. In a remarkably short period of just over four years — which included one unopposed reelection in 2011 — Ulster County Executive Mike Hein has defined his office, staked out his turf, and brought order and direction (as in making the trains run on time) to where there had mainly been rule by legislative committee.
Donaldson gave us the real lay of the land. County government, he told his audience, is controlled by a coalition of the county executive, the Democratic minority and “a few of our Republican friends.”
Where, one might ask, does this leave the Republican majority and legislature Chairwoman Terry Bernardo, who has her handful of loyalists? Up the turbid Esopus Creek, I’d say.
The Victorian-era political writer Walter Bagehot famously divided the unwritten British constitution into two parts: the dignified, the symbolic way in which political systems seem to work, and the efficient, the way things actually get done. To understand a political system, he said, one must examine how things actually work.
The majority Republicans of the Ulster legislature look a good deal more powerful on paper than in practice. The illusion began the first of the year where (12-11) majority Republicans united to re-elect Bernardo to her second (one-year) term as chairman. Bernardo then proceeded by charter to appoint standing committees of the legislature; Sounds pretty powerful, almost like the legislature was indeed an equal branch of government.
But the real power lies with whatever combination has the votes. Here Hein, a Democrat who used to be a Republican, has made himself king of the hill. The actual arrangement renders Bernardo a mere figurehead.
There are other forces in play, but none of any consequence. There is, for instance, Ulster County’s local version of the state Senate’s Independent Democratic Coalition (IDC), which hereabouts means the three legislators named Parete — father John and sons Rob and Rich. The family trio, divided on issues like who sits where at Thanksgiving, detests Donaldson for past political offenses against the clan. But it has lacked the influence (six votes) to deny him another term as minority leader. On legislative matters, where a few votes can count, the Paretes can make things happen, or not.
County government — despite Hein’s considerable success on holding down spending — is still, with its $360 million annual budget and its impact on local economics, by far the largest government entity hereabouts. So who would one approach for a favor from county government, the executive or the chairman of the legislature? The answer, as seen by the minority leader, is most revealing.
It’s amazing how quickly people get annoyed with political theater. Perhaps they’ve seen too much of it. A case in point is last week’s Terry Bernardo-Mike Hein spitstorm over the Bernardos ongoing tax disputes with the county. I was at a Palm Sunday breakfast when the subject came up after Mass. “They were going to invite Bernardo and Hein to a mud-wrestling contest, but they ran out of mud,” an usher grumbled.
I was a surprised to see Hein quoted in a Sunday Freeman story which detailed a state report on Ulster’s slight decline among the counties (from 29th to 31st) in public-health measurements. Under a carefully contrived imaging strategy, Hein does not deliver bad news, only good news, policy initiatives and proclamations. Under that consistent scenario, the all-but-invisible county public health director Dr. Carol Smith (she’s not even listed by name in the county’s printed handbook) should have taken the hit for the disappointing news from the state.