Hugh Reynolds: Sunny days

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Throw open the doors! Let in the fresh air! It’s “sunshine week” in Albany.

Well, maybe not. As we speak, the three or four men in a room are, as usual, secretly hammering out the loose ends of a state budget due a week from next Wednesday.

Good-government types may posture before the TV cameras, but even zealots know in their bones that the wallets of donors and the outstretched hands of politicians are what’s most open in Albany. Given the state government’s congenital distaste for anything resembling open government, the chances of the states now-hoary 1974 open meetings laws being meaningfully improved this year are slim. Why, only last week Assembly Speaker-since-January Carl Heastie let it be known than any attempt at expansion of open-meetings laws would not include his house of the legislature.

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And it’s not just Albany. Here in Ulster, it took legal teams from the executive’s and county comptroller’s office months to hammer out two-and-a-half-page document called “protocols for providing information or records to the Ulster County comptroller.”

The protocols — a fancy word for “rules of engagement” — rose because of the county executive’s stonewalling the county’s chief fiscal officer’s requests for records and materials, according to the comptroller. Elliot Auerbach had only to remind Mike Hein that under the county charter his office had subpoena powers that he was willing to exercise. The thousand-word agreement, dated Jan. 15, almost exactly seven years after Hein and Auerbach took office, does not mention the word “subpoena.”

Which is to say, in the business of politics where information is vital, secrecy will always be an issue. And we all know what grows in the dark.

Troubled waters

In offering New Paltz residents a choice on what kind of new bridge the county will build at the western end of the village over the Wallkill River, Mike Hein could be treading on thin ice. On one hand, the public relations benefits of positioning this cloistered administration as open to public input on major projects can only enhance the executive’s re-election chances in November. In the normal course of events, the administration issues a press release telling people what it has done or plans to do. Paltzians, or as some prefer, Paltzonians, who form one of the county’s more contentious voting groups, will no doubt appreciate the consideration. But this is New Paltz, where the confluence of two or more people often makes for serious argument. Does Hein really want opposing factions fighting in the middle of a re-election campaign over the color of paint on a new bridge?

Maybe the twice-elected executive is just being smart. Recall the ugly outcry last year when he suddenly announced he was naming a new county bridge in Hurley after deceased Woodstock musical icon Levon Helm. The howls of indignation could be heard all the way to … New Paltz?

This time out, Hein will also sweeten the pot by building a temporary bridge over the Wallkill while the new $1.7 million bridge is being built.

Previously inconvenienced residents of Hurley and Mount Marion, where the county shut down traffic to replace bridges, might take note, and maybe umbrage as well.

Analyze this

This probably doesn’t surprise many people, but only about 43 percent of eligible voters turned out for legislative races in Ulster County’s 23 county legislative districts in 2013. There were no contests in six districts. That’s about average for off-year local elections, way short of predictions from advocates of single-member districts, who had argued that replacing multi-member districts with one-on-one contests voters would result in better-known candidates and greater voter participation.

According to the board of elections, turnout in the 2013 elections  ranged from a high of 56 percent in Democrat John Parete’s Olive-Shandaken district to an embarrassing 22 percent in Democrat Hector Rodriguez’s New Paltz village district. That latter race comes with an asterisk; Rodriguez ran unopposed (as did Republican Ken Ronk in Wallkill, who racked up a stunning 26 percent). The lesson seems to be that voters might turn out for single-member elections, but not for single-candidate coronations.

But even in hotly contested districts where incumbents were sent home: Chris Allen over Bob Aiello in Saugerties and Lynn Archer over Terry Bernardo in Rochester, turnout averaged about 47 percent.

The single-member 23-district legislature was created by charter in 2006 and implemented after the 2010 census. Proponents predicted that replacing at-large districts, where upwards of a dozen candidates could be running in teams against each other, with face-to-face elections would enhance voter turnout and render legislators more accountable.

Two elections (2011 and 2013) do not a pattern make, but sub-50 percent turnout in face-to-face elections is disappointing. It may be that legislators may be even less accountable under a strong-executive system than when they were running the county prior to 2009. I don’t have a fix. A reapportionment committee will deal with those issues in about six years.

Play ball!

In an absolutely fabulous ending to a high school basketball game, the magical (18-4) dual-championship season closed last Saturday afternoon at SUNY New Paltz for the Saugerties boys, who lost to an incredibly talented Spring Valley squad. The memories will linger for years.

After attending that game, with about a thousand other local fans, I came to better appreciate the impact a winning sports team can have on a community. Most of the fans were from Saugerties, uniquely a sports town, many of them wearing team colors. But I spotted familiar faces from all over. Steve Haun brought his wheelchair-bound father to the game to watch son Gene perform. Ralph Longendyke and wife Joann brought Ralph’s elderly mother. Toddlers crawled around the packed stands.

Saugerties captured its second straight MHAL championship with relative ease, but had to hang on for a 54-53 victory over archrival Red Hook for the sectional title two weeks ago.

Spring Valley, with a 17-game winning streak, was clearly the better team, bigger, quicker to the ball, and faster down court. Their swarming defense had Saugerties trailing by ten points in the first quarter. Some fans feared a blowout. But coach Mike Tiano rallied his troops and slowed down the game.

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The Saugerties team crept back. At one point early in the fourth quarter it looked like Spring Valley was on the ropes with Saugerties closing in. It was anybody’s game. Winner got a trip to the state final four in Glens Falls.

The unforgettable climatic moment came with the Sawyers down four points with 20 seconds left. All-star Paton Gibbs — they call him Mr. Gibbs —  dribbled near the top of the key, went up for what looked like an impossible jump shot with two defenders draped all over him, and bang! It went in! With the foul! A four-point play to tie? The crowd went insane.

Gibbs stepped to the line and calmly (or so it seemed) canned the free throw, the 999th and last point of his stellar career. Fellow all-star Darnell Edge (21 points) had scored his thousandth point earlier in the game. Fans gave him a standing ovation when it was announced.

Spring Valley called a time out as fans buzzed. Of course they would feed the ball inside to one of the burly leapers who had tortured Saugerties all game long with putbacks, above the rim rebounds and blocked shots. But no. As the crowd tensed and Saugerties packed the lane, Spring Valley worked the ball around the perimeter. The clock wound down. Would it go to overtime?

With six seconds left, Rickey McGill (23 points) launched a high, arching unmolested three-pointer from the corner. It seemed to hang in the air. Swish, 65-62. No time outs. The Spring Valley fans erupted.

There were no losers in this game. Saugerties fans, many of whom crossed the gym to congratulate the jubilant winners, filed out knowing they had witnessed history.