When Politicians are Appointed, Rather than Elected, We the People Don’t Get to Choose

Filling vacancies when a politician steps down is a hot topic today. Witness the mess in Virginia. Closer to home in Ulster County, we likewise are facing a controversy, albeit of a smaller scale. Ulster County Executive Michael Hein recently announced that he will shortly resign to become the commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. This will create a vacancy in the county’s top elected executive position for the first time since we adopted our charter in 2006. So we find ourselves learning now about how we must fill the vacancy. And some of us are not happy.

Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale and his Republican counterpart, Roger Rascoe, have asked that governor Andrew Cuomo intervene in the process. More on that, shortly.

The bigger picture is that we miss the significance of this kind of issue because our governmental system is so decentralized. There are more than 500,000 elected offices in the United States.  After looking at some demographics and mortality tables, I reached a rough estimate that about 3,000 incumbents will die in office this year. And that does not count those who will resign, or get sick and can’t work, or move away, or are removed for cause. Nor does it consider offices that must be filled because no one runs for them. In total, that’s likely several thousand more. So we need to think hard about what is at stake.

When I worked on the question of filling vacancies in elective office for the New York City Charter Commission in the 1980s, I learned of the mix governmental and political considerations embedded in this process: continuity in governance; legitimacy of representative government; and political career advancement. Unfortunately, too often the latter priority overwhelmed the other two more noble goals, and careers in “elected” office were regularly launched and advanced by appointment. (more…)

Six Things You Need to Know About New York’s Blue Wave 

Dr. Gerald Benjamin of the Benjamin Center has written or edited more than  a dozen books on the workings of New York State government and politics. In light of historic changes in the balance of power in New York State on Tuesday, it seemed all-too-obvious to get Benjamin’s quick take on what has happened and what it means for New York’s voters. 

Next Wednesday, November 15th, Benjamin will co-lead a conversation at the State Academy for Public Administration in Albany on this topic. But ahead of that event here’s Benjamin’s framing.

The Most Important, Least-Discussed “Win” for Democrats

Benjamin said the statewide majority in the Senate, retention of the Governorship by Cuomo, and the firm grip on the Assembly is a precursor to retaining control of all three branches in 2020 and controlling redistricting. “We had a constitutional amendment to mitigate partisanship and redistricting. But the final say remains with legislators.” Consequently, he said, we can be sure that Democratic control will be cemented in both houses, and congressional districts will be redesigned to favor them. 

However, speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday, Senators Michael Gianaris and Liz Krueger said they’re not happy with the redistricting amendment. “It was really nothing more than an awful political outcome,” Gianaris said. “The Republicans made sure that they ingrained an unfair process in the state Constitution.” Kreuger pointed out that, given the state’s party alignment, Democrats would still secure their majorities without the level of gerrymandering that exists today. “You can do redistricting independently and fairly and you’re still going to end up with more Democratic Senate seats because the gerrymandering has been so unfair for so many decades.” 

How many decades? 

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Your Most Important Vote this November is Hidden on the Second Page of the Ballot

Partisan gerrymandering — incumbents drawing legislative districts to keep control of legislative bodies — destroys democracy by assuring that majorities don’t rule. It has been described as elected officials choosing their voters, instead of their voters choosing their representatives. 

At the national, state and local levels our governments are made undemocratic by gerrymandering; despite widespread protest, those in power in both major parties keep doing it so that they can stay in power. Repeated efforts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to undo this practice have failed, though surely it is unconstitutional.

What most people in Ulster County may not know is that we are among the handful of places in the country that doesn’t have this problem. That’s because our county charter gives us a process for neutral non-partisan legislative redistricting. And it has worked. The districts for the current, closely divided county legislature were drawn through this non-partisan process. But in doing this the first time around we found out that there were some flaws in our design, and we needed to take further steps to be sure that it was more inclusive and effective while remaining non-partisan. 

Under the leadership of County Executive Michael Hein, a commission headed by Kingston attorney Rod Futerfas was formed to work on this. (more…)

The End of Cheap Water

Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley

New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.

Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.

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What We Lost When We Vetoed a Constitutional Convention

 

Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.

Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.

This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.

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Elected Officials and Social Media Use: Should There be Rules?

Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.

In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.

Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.

But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?

Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.

This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications.  (more…)

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