Tasked with revisiting the Ulster County Charter, the members of the newly formed revision commission met for the second time on October 6, rolled up their sleeves, and begin the meticulous work of sifting and selecting, weighing and discarding suggested changes to the county’s guiding document.
Led by chair Kathleen Mihm, the commission, with ample representation of experienced politicos, can be thought of as a think tank granted the power to decide what amendments or revisions to the charter are on or off the table. The recommendations of the commission will be filtered through the county legislature. Then the voters will have their say during the 2023 general election cycle.
The process aims to allow for change while keeping proposals within the guardrails of sober deliberation.
The Ulster County Charter is resurrected every seven years to allow for change. It’s theorized that cicadas, which share a similar time-line, stay underground as long as they do to avoid the predations of natural enemies. There may be similar logic to spacing out any untimely opportunity to meddle with the charter.
There’s little glory for the appointed commission members. Held in the dialect of bureaucratese, the discussions can glaze the eyes and dim the spirit. And yet the commission keeps up a cheerful banter throughout.
Down to work
Deputy county comptroller Alicia DeMarco came armed with a list of preliminary recommendations organized by the comptroller’s office for the committee’s review. The list addressed everything from the length of time between committee meetings to suggestions expanding the jurisdiction of the comptroller’s office.
The comptroller feels that the position of Commissioner of Finance should be banned from outside employment of any kind. “The only other office with restricted outside employment in the present charter, noted DeMarco, was the county executive. We felt like there were certain positions, obviously, that should be restricted from outside employment due to actual or perceived conflicts of interest,” said DeMarco.
DeMarco also suggested the same change to the comptroller’s position.
“So in other words,” riffed committee member David Donaldson, “the comptroller can’t go out and bartend.”
Committee member T.J. Briggs, a man with an impressive mustache, mused openly. “It’s great to have laws but if there’s no enforcement it doesn’t mean anything.”
It was decided that enforcement of the amendment, is adopted, would have to come from the Ulster County Ethics Board.
Briggs remained skeptical. “I know there’s a whistleblower law and all that other nonsense,” he said, “but that 50 cents could buy you a cup of coffee in a crummy diner because I think nobody’s going to blow the whistle.”
This proposal was not yet ready for a vote.
DeMarco noted that the comptroller’s office thought it would be a good idea to strike that language of the charter which compelled the executive or the legislature to weigh in on their own pay raises.
“I don’t know if you guys are all familiar with the [compensation review] committee, but they recently came out with recommendations to increase the elected officials’ salaries. And March [comptroller Gallagher] was like ‘I’m not touching that. I’m not going to ask to increase my own salary.’ So I went to Pat Ryan, and Pat was like, good luck with that. My wife agrees with you, but I’m never gonna say to increase my own salary.”
DeMarco noted that voting for a salary hike puts elected officials who have to run for office in a tight spot.
“[In an election] your opponent will most definitely say ‘Oh, they just voted to give themselves a raise’ no matter how minimal it is.”
“That’s why we wait,” deadpanned ex-legislator Hector Rodriguez, “until after an election.”
Perhaps the most prominent bone stuck in the throat of the comptroller’s office was its own inability to audit the finances of public authorities. (For a complete understanding of the powers of these agencies read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a book detailing the life and times of their creator, Robert Moses.)
Safe from the oversight of comptrollers and immune to the votes of the electorate except through key elected representatives, public-benefit corporations such as the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) have long irritated comptroller Gallagher for their ability to run their books in complete obscurity, accounting for their finances without the oversight of her office.
“Adding public benefit corporations to our audit authority,” explained DeMarco, “that basically comes down to the fact that we had to fight in court over our authority to audit the UCCRA. “We did win. And we had a favorable opinion that we did have audit authority. But again, if we go out to audit another public-benefit corporation, and they fight us again, we do not want to have to expend more money to fight that. This is really just to save taxpayer dollars on legal fees.”
Should the commission present this recommendation to the legislature, there is no doubt whatsoever public authorities will fight tooth and nail at the ballot box to defeat it.
“Everything should be open and transparent,” said Alicia DeMarco. “That’s our wish.”
While most recommendations were tabled pending future discussion, the commission did immediately embrace one of the comptroller’s recommendations: shortening the window of time between which the charter could be revised from seven years down to five.
Commission member Shannon Harris, ex-supervisor Shannon Harris of the Town of Esopus made a motion on it, Dave Donaldson seconded the motion, and the recommendation passed unanimously.
“Seems,” said Harris, “like a no-brainer.”
Recommendations to the Charter Revision Committee need not be made by government offices alone. Chair of the commission Mihm has invited ordinary citizens to provide their opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the charter, as well as the proposed improvements being discussed.
Comments are to be forwarded to the Ulster County executive confidential secretary Jerry Sheehan who will pass them along to the commission. The commission can be reached by email at jesh@co,ulster.ny.us