Auerbach reloads

by Hugh Reynolds
March 31, 2011 11:16 AM | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Despite a successful reelection campaign and another three years in the bank, Ulster county comptroller Elliott Auerbach has had a rough time of late. Some of the self-appointed fiscal sheriff’s miseries, like messy research, tenuous conclusions and embarrassing retractions, have been self-inflicted. Hey, this guy could be working for a newspaper!

Auerbach’s critics, and they have become legion, also charge he hasn’t hired the professional firepower to audit governmental finances and that he doesn’t have the authority under the charter to withhold funds when he isn’t given the records he seeks. In the latter case, the jury is still out. The charter gives the independent comptroller sweeping powers to probe government financial affairs, including subpoena power to call witnesses and secure records.

The more generous will give the eager comptroller his two-year learning curve. He has acknowledged mistakes were made. Conclusions were drawn from less-than-compelling documentation. In some cases, the comptroller just hasn’t been fair.

Here, I refer to a conversation with former Resource Recovery Agency director Mike Bemis. In a rare interview with media, the deposed Bemis pointed out that while the comptroller repeatedly rapped the RRA for running up $32 million in public-obligated debt “he never mentions that we paid down $14 million of that debt over the past five years.”

I asked Auerbach about that. “Fair commentary,” he said.

Releasing reports without offering an advance copy to subjects has also produced some serious pushback. Auerbach promises to be more courteous but no less zealous.

To deal with at least some of his issues, Auerbach announced last week he has hired former Kingston city treasurer and former county auditor Lisa Cutten, a CPA, as his chief auditor.

Cutten comes with some baggage. She’s bounced around a number of jobs of late and she’s seen as something of a hard-nose. But few question her competence.

Thanks to the voters, Auerbach gets another chance to do things better. His is a vital post in a county government all too inclined to paper over embarrassing news.

Holley go lightly

Republican district attorney Holley Carnright never mentioned his Democratic opponent by name during his reelection announcement on Monday. In fact, he claimed he didn’t have an “opponent” when asked by reporters if his remarks about needing a “tough, experienced” DA were a reflection on declared candidate Jonathan Sennett, a public defender from New Paltz with left-of-center views.

“Wadda ya mean, no opponent?” a reporter asked. “He declared three weeks ago.”

Before Carnright could respond another reporter said,

“He’s not nominated,” Carnright said. “Neither are you,” countered a reporter.

“But I’m the district attorney,” Carnright said, with that wry smile of his.

The remark juxtaposed nicely with the campaign sign behind him, the one that read “Holley Carnright, Ulster County District Attorney,” not “re-elect Carnright district attorney.” For now, Carnright is the DA, and that will count for much in the coming election.

But if Carnright ignored his erstwhile opponent, he may at the same time have handed him a campaign issue in refusing to recuse himself from the controversial Tim Matthews case. Matthews, a suspended Kingston detective lieutenant, is accused of, among other things, felony grand larceny over some $9000 in cash unaccounted for in his office safe. Matthews, who will retire next week after serving two 30-day unpaid suspensions, is also accused of double-dipping in his part-time job as head of security at Kingston High School. Should a grand jury indict, the district attorney’s office will prosecute, or so says the district attorney in rejecting calls to step aside because of a perceived conflict of interest between his office and Matthews.

There is no question the DA and the chief detective have worked closely on numerous criminal matters over Carnight’s 33-month tenure. Indeed, some if not many of the numerous convictions cited by Carnright at his announcement on Monday were probably investigated by Matthews and crew, Kingston being the crime capital of the county.

Carnright, a thoughtful, reflective man, had no doubt pondered those issues even before one of the leading dailies did some investigative reporting.

The Times Herald-Record queried some of the top law school professors in the country on the subject of DA-detective conflict. All opined Carnright should step aside. Several suggested that the DA faced a no-win situation. If he goes hard on Matthews, he would be accused of playing politics, if easy, of playing favorites.

Carnight’s announcement ended on an unintended humorous note. Perhaps referring to conflict-of-interest issues that may arise, Carnright, with wife Denise standing at his side, declared, “In closing, let me state that I have but one mistress,” (pause, as the crowd, and Mrs. Carnright looked perplexed). “One light that guides every decision we make is justice.”

Someone from the press corps mentioned his wife seemed taken aback by the mistress line.

“Yeah. I should have told her about that,” the DA chuckled.

Census slumber

Something historic happened last week with the official release of 2010 census figures, though you’d hardly know it from the silence at Kingston’s city hall.

For the first time since 1970, the federal census showed Kingston with an increase in population over the last ten years. For sure, it wasn’t much, 437 people, according to census-takers, but it reverses a long, long downward trend that saw the city’s population peak at 29,260 people in 1960 and decline to 23,456 in 2000.

Whether this represents dead-cat bounce or nascent revival, we can’t know for sure. For now, it’s encouraging.

Overall, the county shows an increase of some 4700 to about 182,500. Before breaking out the champaign and/or press releases, county officials should take into account that some 3500 state prison inmates in Wawarsing and Shawangunk are included in that number but by law will not be counted for census purposes. Absent convicts, Ulster’s population virtually flatlined over the last decade.

These census figures will have immediate political consequences. Towns that grew, like New Paltz (+1173), Shawangunk (+2310, minus prisoners), Lloyd (+922) and Plattekill (+607) can expect greater representation in the county legislature while places that lost population — Rosendale-Esopus (down 567), Saugerties (down 268) and Olive-Shandaken (down 310) — can expect to lose clout.

Those issues will be addressed immediately by the special commission on reapportionment that has bee meeting for the better part of two months now. With census figures in hand and software fired up, the commission should be able meet its self-imposed deadline of completing the redistricting of the legislature from 33 members to 23 by mid-April.

Nostradamus Klein

Reapportionment was the subject of court action this week in an effort to determine who has final authority on reapportionment, the legislature or the charter-mandated commission.

I won’t rehash the arguments, all of which have been before the public for months, but I did learn that former legislature chairman Lou Klein (1978-79) was something of a seer on this subject in testimony before the charter commission some five years ago. Klein, who like most people supported the idea of an independent reapportionment commission (with no interference from the legislature), also noted that the goal of producing a plan for the 2011 elections might be difficult. Why not, he suggested, delay the whole process until 2013? It’s not unheard of. The Kingston common council was reapportioned in 2003.

With the judge pondering her decision, appeals a real possibility, and June deadlines for candidate nominating petitions looming, Klein may have been on to something.

Charter follies

What was it that Abraham Lincoln used to say about keeping your mouth shut and being thought a fool? The Ulster County Legislature in an ill-conceived effort to jump-start charter review and maybe steal one on the executive, looked downright foolish.

The charter calls for an eleven-member citizen committee, similar to the reapportionment committee, to review the charter five years after its approval by voters. That would be this year, a fact that didn’t seem to dawn on legislators until this March. Under the executive-loaded charter, county exec Mike Hein gets to name five members, minority and majority leaders in the legislature three each. Therefore, no matter who is executive he or she has a majority on the revision committee ...

The legislation passed 30-0 by the legislature authorized the chairman to appoint a charter review committee of legislators, which of course ran counter to the straightforward language in the charter.

Hein, with reference to the legislature’s apparent good intentions, vetoed it, his first veto in some 27 months in office. Red-faced legislative leaders accepted the veto with little comment.

“We were just trying to get things going,” said one legislator. The charter was quite explicit on how to do that.++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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