Ulster County Legislature Chairman John Parete’s recently released think piece on campaign finance reform may read like a resolution, but according to its author it is at this point just a collection of ideas. That’s just as well. Any piece of legislation that limits the county executive’s ability to raise campaign funds will die a lonely death in committee some time after the November elections.
Parete’s proposal, distributed to legislators and the media at the end of last week’s regular legislature session, would sharply curtail, if not eliminate entirely, donations to elected officials from vendors, consultants and others doing business with the county. It would also make donations by county workers to officeholders under their direct control, including Parete’s, illegal.
“I neither solicit nor accept campaign donations from my [legislative] staff,” Parete said. “People shouldn’t have to pay for their jobs.”
Easy for him to say. Parete has no opponent in the November elections.
Parete’s unstated aim is to hold up to scrutiny the Mike Hein money machine, which to date has poured close to $300,000 into the candidate’s campaign coffers over the last few years. Much of that money comes from people doing business or seeking to do business with the county. Some comes from high-level county employees under his control. In that regard, campaign spending reports indicate Hein is no different than most other high-ranking officials. Why can’t we be different, asks Parete.
Hein usually ignores such fishing expeditions or sends an underling to thrust and parry, but Parete did manage to get his attention on this one. Noting that he and Hein had separately called for comprehensive campaign contribution reform in their respective 2014 state-of-the-county messages, Parete had asked rhetorically, what happened to the executive’s?
The response, any response, might have surprised some people. Hein’s statement in the Daily Freeman was that upon advice of his legal team, “The type of comprehensive and effective campaign reform we seek is pre-empted by New York State election law.”
Does anybody read this stuff before it goes out?
New York State election law is a joke, one which any politician or donor with half a brain can easily circumvent pretty much at will. It’s supervised by a toothless board of elections which needs Democrats and Republicans to agree before proceeding, which rarely happens.
Recall the more than $300,000 that was funneled through the Ulster County Democratic Committee by downstate donors late in the 2014 Cecilia Tkaczyk campaign. All perfectly legal for so-called party housekeeping purposes.
State law typically sets a floor, but not necessarily a ceiling. The state’s home-rule tradition allows for municipalities to augment state law, but not exceed it.
There is county precedent to demonstrate this axiom, one which Hein himself has endorsed. Recall the county’s 2011 reapportionment process that took decision-making out of the hands of powerful self-interested legislators and gave it to a bipartisan citizen review board. Something new under the sun, it was not pre-empted by state law.
In and of itself the hodgepodge, self-serving state election law would seem a weak excuse to explain why a self-described progressive executive had failed to advance election reform.
Going Biblical to make his point, Parete said, “People say some drugs are entry drugs. I don’t know. What I’m saying is that money is the gateway to corruption, and that needs to change.”
Parete, more than most, appreciates that Hein controls the legislature (he owns some votes, rents others). Though Parete’s think piece, like Hein’s call for reform, will go nowhere, it certainly provides something to think about.
Now hear this!
On a positive note, Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo, to his considerable credit, departed from long-established public hearing procedure to engage speakers at last week’s hearing on amending the city charter on water policy. Typically, those chairing public hearings sit there stone-faced, refusing to respond to anything speakers say. “We’re here to hear the public” is the usual response.
Gallo, to the contrary, interacted with speakers, answered questions in a straightforward way and explained the process while remaining neutral on the issues at hand. I suspect on some level he opposes this proposition, in part because it’s being advanced by some of his political enemies and in part because it will give the Common Council co-approval, with the mayor, of outside water sales. Under city law dating to the mid-1890s, the mayorally-appointed water board has sole control.
In a sense, last week’s inconveniently-timed public hearing on giving city government authority over the sale of city water to outsiders was superfluous. Most if not all the issues had been repeatedly aired at a jam-packed public session held by the water board to explain the Niagara Bottling proposal at City Hall last winter and in endless exchanges on the web and in the media. Aldermen weighed in during legislative sessions. As of now, it’s a moot point. The water board isn’t selling water to any new customers and insists it had no deal with Niagara Bottling.
But, as an old reporter advised years ago, there’s always news in non-news events.
For me, one issue was holding a public hearing on a major issue at 10 a.m. on a weekday. Such deliberate timing of a public event is by any measure a contradiction in terms. If the purpose was to meet the letter of the law with the least bother, it worked. Including media and three aldermen, there were about 25 people in the cavernous council chambers when Gallo called the hearing to order. (I won’t count Second Ward Alderman Brian Seche’s walkthrough, but at least he can tell constituents he was there, very briefly.) No county legislator from the city appeared, though two of three are retired. Maybe they don’t care about issues like water that concern not only city residents but also others in surrounding towns. If there was anybody there from Woodstock, source of the water, they didn’t identify themselves.
Several attendees spoke to the timing of the public hearing. Lynn Rittenhouse of Linderman Avenue, a supporter of the referendum, asked the mayor to hold another hearing in the evening where working people could more readily attend. It fell on deaf ears, the mayor having announced before the hearing that he would sign legislation passed unanimously by the Common Council to present the matter at referendum in November.
It wasn’t entirely a red-letter day for Hizzoner. At one point he volunteered to the sparse gathering that he first heard about the $50 million Niagara water proposal when a reporter called him for comment. Talk about out of touch. The mayor is a voting member of the water board, but according to official records rarely attends the board’s mid-afternoon monthly meetings.
One gets the sense mayors aren’t missed. As a reflection on its historic autonomy, water department records show that since its 1895 formation no sitting mayor has ever been elected president of the water board. And mayors appoint its members.