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Op-ed column

Information needed on what legislative bodies are up to

Sunday, March 17, 2013
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Op-ed column


The first 2013 Schenectady County budget proposal presented to the Legislature last fall called for a larger-than-usual tax increase and triggered loud negative reactions from many, including the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce.

Commenting on the reactions at the November county legislative meeting, Legislator Philip Fields noted that when a frog is placed in very hot water, it jumps out. But when the frog is placed in cool water that is then heated to a much higher temperature, the frog stays in the water.

He suggested that the reaction to the first 2013 budget proposal was in part due to it calling for a sudden and steeper tax increase on the heels of more modest budgets and tax increases in the preceding three years. He maintained that had the Legislature increased budgets incrementally over the previous three years to reach the level proposed in the initial 2013 budget, there would probably have been much greater public acceptance of it.

The Fields Dictum

A look at the public reaction to both new and long-established practices in city and county government supports this “Fields Dictum.” As long as what is going on in local government is seen as ordinary, routine or what’s been done all along, it gets no attention from voters, the media or local advocacy groups.

The Fields Dictum was seen at work in the reaction to the practice of Democrats on the City Council holding party meetings behind closed doors, excluding the media, the public and Vince Riggi — the only non-Democrat on the City Council. This new practice spurred intense newspaper coverage and a strong negative public reaction, resulting in Peggy King, the new City Council president, pledging not to have such party meetings.

Yet for many years the county Legislature’s Democratic members have held such closed party meetings. In line with the Fields Dictum, this established practice gets no public attention. The state’s Open Meetings Law mandates “. . . public business be performed in an open and public manner. . .” while at the same time exempting from these requirements the “. . .deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses. . . .”

Holly Vellano, elected to the county Legislature on the Conservative Party line, regularly caucuses with her 13 Democratic colleagues at these party meetings. There has been no public reaction to this practice nor followup with the state Committee on Open Government to determine if an elected Conservative legislator’s attending the closed meetings of Democratic legislators means these meetings no longer qualify as party caucuses exempted from the Open Meetings Law. Now James Buhrmaster, the lone Republican on the county Legislature, is the only legislator excluded.

It is important for the public to be told who attends these meetings as guests, how often meetings are held, who leads them and how decisions are agreed upon, because the public meetings of the county Legislature are now mostly scripted political theater performed to create a public record and to keep voters at ease.

Actual decisions are being made outside of the county’s public legislative meetings and outside of the public’s view.

Nursing home decision

A review of the public legislative role in the decision to build and operate a new county nursing home in Glendale is revealing.

Early on in the process, Susan Savage, then chair of the Legislature, created a Glendale Home Subcommittee with Karen Johnson and Brian Gordon as co-chairs.

This subcommittee was given no charge by Savage as to what it was to do, no list of issues it was to consider, no goals it was to meet, and no timetable for making any reports. Membership of the Glendale Home Subcommittee, as well as the two standing committees to which it reports, is the full Legislature of 15 members. There is no public record of this committee — or of the two standing committees to which it reports — ever having met.

This subcommittee held one hearing for public input at the Glendale Home. The record of this hearing is a video recording available through a Freedom of Information request to the clerk of the Legislature.

Remarkably, the Legislature’s website continues to include the Glendale Home Subcommittee with its two co-chairs, thus giving the public the impression of it actually functioning and having a purpose.

It does not.

More remarkable is that the membership of this Glendale Home Subcommittee (all 15 county legislators) is the same as the structure of every other committee of the Legislature. Legislators’ comments made at monthly public committee meetings are often highly partisan and are repeated at length a week later at the meeting of the Legislature. Now the Legislature’s committees are of very limited public value.

While the Open Meetings Law prescribes that, “. . . public business be performed in an open and public manner. . .,” in fact it is too often carried out in what is at best a quasi-public manner very similar to other businesses of comparable size.

The Fields Dictum is supported when contrasting the strong negative reaction to the new practice of the City Council’s Democrats holding party meetings to the general indifference to a similar ongoing practice at the county Legislature.

Coverage is criticaL

The newspaper coverage given to one and lacking in the other is critical to understanding the different outcomes.

The Gazette’s Kathleen Moore, reporting on the city’s new practice, was critical to the public learning about and reacting to it. Such reporting falls to the print media and rests on reporters developing an in-depth knowledge of both the local issues and the people moving these issues.

As newspaper circulation and revenues continue to shrink, local reporting staffs are reduced and remaining reporters have more to cover.

Too often local reporting must rely on reworking or quickly following up on some press releases issued by government. Concerned voters are less well-informed as a result. Sadly, the weekly paper The Spotlight has now discontinued circulation and reporting in Schenectady County.

Their Schenectady reporter, John Purcell, is to be reassigned — a further loss for newspaper-reading voters.

Elmer Bertsch lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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