The recent political chatter about “Obamacare” before the Supreme Court of the United States got a great deal of media attention. President Obama added fuel to the fire when he declared, “Ultimately, I am confident the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”
For someone who was a law professor those words were absurd. Even if a bill passed unanimously in the house and senate, it could still be overturned – if the law was in violation of the Constitution.
Giving up is not “reform.” County Executive Ed Mangano’s proposal to transfer property assessment from the county to the towns might possibly speed up assessment decisions by replacing one large and overwhelmed bureaucracy with several somewhat smaller ones. It will likely recreate problems that were major motivations in creating our highly centralized county government 75 years ago.
The 1938 county charter merged the town Boards of Assessors and the County Board of Equalization, ending three decades of complaints, lawsuits and hard feelings about the lack of specific, uniform levels of property assessments between the towns. In a tax system screaming out for simplification, clarification and a sense of certainty, spinning off assessments to the towns will reintroduce “equalization” as an annual issue. Tens of thousands of residents are still trying to figure out why their assessment went down but their tax bill still went up. The division of taxes heading up the tax food chain in an equitable manner is the most complex subject in local government, and it’s all going to make people very sad, particularly in villages and school districts that are split between townships.
Manhattan District Attorney (D.A.) Robert Morgenthau was facing a spirited Democratic primary challenge from a former judge in 2005, but his opponent had trouble finding anything substantively negative to say about Morgenthau.
The reason I know this: a city-based tabloid newspaper reporter called me weeks before the election, asking whether it was legal to have a Manhattan driver’s license while at the same time registering and insuring a car in Dutchess County, where auto insurance premiums are much lower. The answer: yes, so long as the insured vehicle is primarily garaged in Dutchess County. I was the director of public affairs for the New York State Insurance Department at the time and knew immediately the question pertained to Morgenthau because he met those criteria.
Written by Michael A. Miller Friday, 23 March 2012 00:00
In the wee morning hours of March 15, long after most observers had left, a massive pile of legislation was dumped on the desks of state legislators in Albany. As Thursday wore on, New Yorkers learned that new deals were cut and legislation passed making significant, precedent-making changes to the state pension system, to casino gambling policy, to the creation of state and federal legislative district boundaries, to the system of collecting DNA from convicted criminals. Most of the legislation did not appear until 3 a.m.
There will be no redistricting reform in 2012, disappointing good government advocates and anyone with a professional or rooting interest in Democrats winning a majority of seats in the state senate in the near future. At least the governor had telegraphed that this was coming for months. Some of the other last-minute deals had some serious people scratching their heads. Why, for example, were New York City firefighters and police excluded from the pension changes? We will know when it is time for us to know, I guess.
Transparency is overrated, it turns out. Only results matter. “You can’t live your life in a goldfish bowl,” Governor Cuomo said on upstate public radio.
Some people think the results can be made better if knowledgeable citizens can have at least a few hours to examine, contemplate and comment on multi-billion dollar policy changes. Or a zoning change, or a property tax levy, or most anything else that doesn’t require urgent and immediate action.
Last week, amusingly, was Sunshine Week across the United States. It always flanks March 16, the birthday of President James Madison, who urged citizens of our new republic to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Hundreds of government units at all levels pass resolutions proclaiming support for opening up government, give tours of government buildings and sometimes adopt rule improvements that make it easier for citizens to follow or participate in decisions. Some municipalities declare “local heroes” who have helped increase access and information. The City of New Rochelle in Westchester County honored Robert Freeman, the longtime executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, and for my money one of the most admirable public servants in New York. His work keeping local governments in compliance has been made harder over the past year due to major cuts in the committee’s budget.
Making open government and freedom of information laws work is a matter of will. When elected officials make clear in both public and in private that business is to be done with openness, with integrity and with public participation, it tends to happen. Open government programs are not only inexpensive but, if done the right way, can actually save money, free up valuable staff resources and just make things go smoother and quieter all around. And yet, somehow, the promise and the results often don’t match up.
In early January, to much cheering and praise, Governor Cuomo signed an important improvement to New York’s Open Meetings Law. Public bodies are supposed to make the text of proposed legislation and key supporting documents available to the public beforehand, and online if they have a regularly-updated website. More than a month after the law took effect, there is little evidence that Long Island town, city and village governments are taking this seriously.
It is no longer uncommon for state commissions to webcast and archive all their proceedings. Many school districts are posting full budgets and minutes, probably because they’ve been under strong scrutiny. Somehow, our local governing bodies can’t figure out the technology, or something. I don’t get it.
A policy of “proactive disclosure” can pay immense benefits in earning public and media trust. That means that most information is just assumed to be public and posted or made available automatically, without waiting for someone to fill out a form. I’ve seen it work firsthand, practiced it and reaped the benefits.
There is nothing stopping local governments from adopting this kind of policy and going way beyond any generic statewide law. Doing the right thing is cheap and popular. You just have to want to.