“Let me tell you, you’re not going to stop me from bringing people together in a room.”
— Ulster County comptroller
March Gallagher, laughing
Tracey Bartels appeared before the Charter Revision Commission on May 4. The chair of the county legislature had brought with her 35 suggestions covering an assortment of topics for the commissioners to consider.
Gathered around the meeting table, the commission listened to Bartels going down her list. They asked her questions.
Bartels said she wanted to tidy up redundancies and trim back any wild growth in the well-ordered legislative garden that may have sprung up over the eleven years since the last county charter revision commission. Departmental overreach, referred to in military circles as mission creep, describes the unchecked expansion of a sphere of influence by one municipal office over another.
Bartels echoed the emphasis famously elucidated by the Frenchman philosophe baron Montesquieu, whose trias politica model of government sought to ensure that no single branch of government would become too powerful to control.
An apt local illustration of departmental scope improperly increased, according to Bartels, was county comptroller March Gallagher’s Citizens’ Commission for Digital Inclusion (CCDI).
“It’s so funny,” said Bartels. “Of all the things I proposed to the charter revision, it seems like this one’s hitting a nerve.”
The CCDI was a success, but …
May 4 marked the one-year anniversary of the CCDI’s distribution of a map of existing cable-fiber broadband coverage in the county. Its purpose was to encourage public comment and to help the commission identify areas of the county lacking access to broadband cable and cellular service.
Working under a swiftly approaching deadline and with billions of dollars in state and federal aid available to expand broadband access to underserved communities, the CCDI had filed a bulk challenge with the FCC on the county’s behalf. It had also assisted residents to file their own challenges, before the January 13, 2023 deadline.
By every metric the comptroller’s commission has been a success. And this Bartels concedes.
“But let’s break down what the comptroller’s office is actually charged with doing,” said Bartels. “Preparing an annual audit and risk assessment. Procuring from the depositories the funds and money coming into the possession of the law at least monthly, auditing records of appropriations and encumbrances, general accounting methods, certifying availability of funds, prescribing the form of records of appropriation. I’m doing this as an exercise, just to show you how extreme this is.”
Bartels read down the dry list of responsibilities charged to the comptroller, ending with the quarterly report on the financial condition of the county.
“There’s nothing in there that I believe you would need a citizen commission, committee, or board to deal with,” argued Bartels. “Because what does broadband have to do with any of those things? I think it’s outside the scope of what she’s actually charged with doing. Now, I didn’t just spring it on the comptroller. I did call her and talk to her about it. We’re both professionals. It’s not personal. But it’s safe to say we totally disagree.”
The subpoena power
Indeed, comptroller March Gallagher does disagree.
“We have a service commission under that provision,” she said. “It is directly aligned with our responsibility because it has been gathering and sharing information that is broadband coverage information, which is a critical part of the economy of Ulster County. And now we are set up to hopefully be in a position to be able to draw down more funds for broadband when it comes out later this year.”
The power for both the county executive and county comptroller to create citizen commissions was vested in those offices by the recommendations of the Charter Revision Commission go-round eleven years ago.
Bartels was there as a legislator.
“I recall sitting in the meeting where the executive office and the comptroller’s office pushed for identical language [in the charter] as the legislature,” said Bartels. “Mike Hein desperately wanted subpoena power. Elliot Auerbach, wanted the same language. We pushed back on the executive’s request.”
Traditionally, the legislature is the appropriating body and policymaking body, the executive branch is where the comptroller fits into, is the administrative body. In the charter, the power of subpoena and the power to convene commissions to study a subject had been vested in the legislature
The commission went along with the executive’s recommendation. Bartels recalled that the power to convene commissions along with the power of subpoena seemed almost like an afterthought. “The argument I’m hearing, including from another legislator,” stated Bartels, “is that nobody saw any harm in it at the time, including me. Everyone saw the value of the subpoenas, because it’s so directly related and it was just a few words in a larger paragraph.”
Citizens’ commissions can manifest themselves as benignly as commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War or memorializing those who passed away during the Covid pandemic. But they can also create confusion, as when former county executive Pat Ryan convened the Ulster County Justice and Reform Commission in March 2022 alongside the legislature’s pre-existing Criminal Justice Reform Task Force.
While Ryan’s commission concerned itself with ending mass incarceration and scrutinizing police oversight, accountability and community relationships, the legislature’s commission had been assigned the task of examining the long-term impacts of recent state bail and discovery reform. In competing for public attention, the two commissions blended together to such a degree in the public consciousness that even the legislators had trouble recalling which was which or which commission they served on.
That they engage county citizens and bring attention to a cause is the laudable feature of commissions. This Bartels recognizes. But she notes that same populist ability to capture and channel public enthusiasm can also serve more off-color motivations.
“A citizens’ commission can become highly politicized,” explained Bartels. “If someone didn’t like a policy that the legislature’s already passed, they could put together a commission to investigate it in an effort to overturn it.”
How to make changes
Fawn Tantillo, member of the Charter Revision Commission, longtime public servant and an ex-legislator, is familiar with both sides of the argument.
“March is doing a great job,” said Tantillo. “The legislature right now is doing a great job. They’re all good people doing good things. But we have to keep in mind that we may not always have these good people with good intentions in those positions. The charter needs to be written in a way which can not only give them the tools they need to do the best job they can. But we also need to be aware of how those tools might be misused and ensure that we don’t set them up to be used inappropriately.”
Gallagher remains nonplussed with what she sees as a curtailment of a central pillar of the comptroller’s office.
“It’s not just my office,” said Gallagher. “She’s trying to curtail the executive’s, too. My understanding of her position is that she just wants it to be a legislative function. Well okay, you had the power to use it and you didn’t even use it. You know, it’s unfortunate that the chairwoman hasn’t convened any commissions during her time as chairwoman of the legislature because I can think of a number of things that might be helped by citizen input. It would have been good to have a comptroller who had that authority during the Ulster County Jail overrun. Which is the whole reason we have a charter form of government.”
Bartels sought to depersonalize the issue.
“You know, I feel like when someone’s talking about the charter,” said Bartels, “it can’t be about me as the chair and Jen Metzger as the executive and March Gallagher as the comptroller. When you consider changes, you’re not talking about individual officeholders. It has to be about the offices..We’ll see how it shakes out. I just hope that people can remove the emotion from the narrative.”