Struggling for relevance

by Hugh Reynolds
August 26, 2010 12:03 PM | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but it may be that the best thing about the 2012 Ulster County Legislature (to be elected next year) is that that there will be ten fewer legislators. Under charter reform approved by the voters in 2006, the legislature will be reduced to 23 members and run in single-member districts. It is as dynamically different as the switch from county administrator to county executive.

Unlike the infamously dysfunctional state legislature, there are few if any “evil” legislators (in former New York mayor Ed Koch’s words) in the Ulster body, just too many bumblers.

Witness the August meeting of the legislature. Legislators, after hearing read the usual birthdays and deaths, presenting the ubiquitous “pride of Ulster County” award to a few grateful constituents and sitting through addresses by concerned but narrowly focused citizens, spent all of 20 minutes legislating.

The irony is that after arguing meaningless semantics — “contract services” replaced “shared services” in agreements that will have the towns plowing short stretches of county roads in Gardiner, Saugerties and Woodstock — the legislators ducked the one potentially important piece of legislation that could have placed them on an even plane with the executive.

I refer to the appointment of human-rights director Arlene Reynolds to head the youth bureau. GOP chairman Fred Wadnola and majority leader Paul Hansut, having judged Reynolds unqualified for the job, one might conclude that the rank-and-file would have agreed.

Instead, the move to block Reynolds died an anonymous parliamentary death (not even mentioned on the floor). The catch-all Governmental Services, Environmental and Administration Committee decided to table the nomination in committee rather than face down executive Mike Hein for the second time (they defeated a previous nominee), thus allowing Reynolds to take office by default. The charter allows a nomination to become official if the legislature fails to act.

Committee chairman Kevin Roberts, in one of those curious moments so common to this legislature, declared that if the lawmakers rejected Reynolds, Hein would just send up another nominee. And Roberts is one of the smart ones, usually. It was Roberts, remember, who lent his name to a one-trick pony resolution to eliminate the consumer affairs department. The co-sponsor was Ken Ronk of Wallkill.

“Any legislator can put in a resolution,” Wadnola said in way of a left-handed defense of his two mavericks. “These guys didn’t consult with anybody before they did it.” In the face of stony silence, the resolution was withdrawn, never again to see the light of day.

Sometimes, these people don’t even remember what they did at the last meeting. For instance, county comptroller Elliott Auerbach was given the floor to offer his well-reasoned position that the comptroller, under the charter, not the legislature, is charged with auditing the legislature. Republicans challenged Auerbach’s right to speak under house rules since he is a declared candidate. Democrats pointed out Republican Fawn Tantillo addressed the legislature in July. Oops.

Wadnola, a former Navy officer, educator and school principal, knows full well where the buck stops.

“It’s a much-fractured legislature,” he said. “There are a lot of individual sides, small groups on this issue or that [re: Roberts/Ronk]. It’s very difficult to get these people together, and I’m talking both sides.”

In terms of keeping order, Wadnola’s generalship — he rose from seaman to senior chief to lieutenant commander in the Navy — is hardly military. Legislature meetings under Wadnola’s seldom-used gavel more resemble a town-board session — he was Ulster supervisor for three terms — than a county forum.

Legislators routinely yak across the aisle with or at each other. Others get up and leave the room during session, either for nature’s calls or to answer cell-phones. One legislator left for home in a huff a few months ago. Another just walked off to tend to an ailing relative. Wadnola looked on benignly, never officially notifying the audience, media or fellow legislators that his Elvises had left the building.

A gift of any chairman is knowing when to cut off debate, hopefully after the second round. To calls from legislators of “Move the question!!” Wadnola lets them ramble on.

“I believe in letting everybody speak. I want to hear all opinions, but I can be a hard-ass if I have to be,” he said. The record suggests otherwise.

Wadnola apparently now appreciates that he faces a formidable foe in Democrat Hein, who seemingly has more clout in this legislature than its chairman.

“He calls legislators all the time, trying to influence their votes,” Wadnola whined. “He called one [unidentified] legislator six times. He’s a very shrewd politician, relentless.”

(Phone calls to Hein on these subjects are a waste of time. If goaded into a comment he would probably only say that he has an obligation to move his agenda.)

While publicly preaching cooperation and communication, Hein dearly loves to bait the legislature when he isn’t lobbying behind the scenes.

“This is supposed to be a policy-making body,” he says. “What policies have they made? Go ahead, name one. Name one.”

It may be, in the legislature’s defense that the hard-driving, publicity-driven freshman executive has sucked most of the energy out of the county office building, leaving solons gasping for air.

If so, they’ve had eight months to suck it up and things are not getting better.

Golden Hill

A special legislative committee is working on policy issues surrounding the Golden Hill health-care facility, a challenge to the legislature in January by none other than ol’ name-one-name-one.

Regarding Walter Frey’s Golden Hill study committee, I thought these people were reinventing the wheel when they sprang into action last June, as a definitive study of the county infirmary has been gathering dust for two years. Now, they need at least two more months to finish, they say. At the same time, the purchasing department has issued requests for proposals from private vendors to operate the facility. To this layman, it sounds like the county is edging away from Golden Hill, and that the committee is asking the private sector to do its homework. We’ll see,

As a footnote, I erred in a recent article in placing the Golden Hill workforce at 500. The personnel department says 386 people work there.

Not to compare the (Democratic) 2008 study with this year’s work in progress, but the current version has already rung up $45,000 in bills (mostly for an architectural consultant). The previous cost nothing.

Fawn fights back

Other than rumbles from the summer barbecue circuit and a few fund-raisers, I hadn’t heard much about Republican Fawn Tantillo, candidate for county comptroller against incumbent Democrat Elliott Auerbach

Until this week.

According to the candidate, the Democratic state comptroller did an audit on the village of Ellenville last January but has not yet released it. She suspects political motives.

A spokesperson for the state comptroller said “field work” has recently been finished on the Ellenville audit and that a preliminary report will be available “in the fall.” The fact that some other audits started around the same time are already public record indicates only that all audits are different, she said.

Auerbach was the village manager at a time when residents were paying the highest per-capita taxes in the county. So dire were fiscal affairs that village officials seriously considered selling village-owned art work to make ends meet.

I think I get Tantillo’s strategy: to tie Auerbach to the municipal disaster called Ellenville, but sometimes her elliptical logic escapes me.

Try this: “This is a new position in Ulster County,” Tantillo noted in her press release “Many people don’t know what the comptroller is or does, so they don’t see that more should be done. We can’t let county property taxes run away like they did in Ellenville.”

Off this tome, it would appear that candidate Tantillo is one of those people who “don’t know what the comptroller is.” One thing he’s not is a taxing authority.

Auerbach’s record as an Ellenville official was thoroughly discussed in the 2008 election. With a death grip on Obama’s coattails, he won over Jim Quigley by a whisker-thin 174 votes.

To be sure, there is some fodder here. Auerbach, as village manager, should have been up to the minute on cash-flow issues, in this case, uncollected taxes. That he called for the state audit suggests the results may not be as controversial as his opponent portends.

In any event, the election is about the incumbent’s performance as comptroller, not his record as a village official. There, Tantillo should find more relevant pickings.++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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