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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Outdated Laws Jam Up Modern Governments

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio didn’t sneak into Town Hall on Jan. 1. He spoke the words of an oath in front of a judge on the steps of Town Hall in front of people. There are pictures. There’s video and audio. Though it was a staged “inauguration” for political consumption, it should probably count for something. But no, as of this writing he is former Supervisor Vecchio, Town Clerk Puleo having declared his office and that of another member of the Town Board to be vacant because they did not file the required written oath within 30 days of the start of their terms.

What a stupid law.

I don’t mean that because of what may happen to Vecchio. He’ll be appointed to fill the vacancy or not by the time you read this. It’s the worst kind of law, the kind that is selectively enforced, almost always with some agenda, often to embarrass or pressure elected officials. Sometimes it’s treated like an inside joke among politicos and the media.

Whenever you have vastly different outcomes for the same law, that law has failed. It fails the basic test of being called a “law.”

I don’t know what Vecchio was thinking in not signing the oath, usually a yellow postcard printed up by the state. It smells like an attempt to make the octogenarian Vecchio, supervisor since 1978, appear confused. All across Long Island, there are people appointed or elected to boards, councils, commissions and legislative bodies who are wondering if they should file the card they forgot to send back or just keep their mouths shut.

Twenty-five years ago, as insiders and observers in Albany were treating the failure of statewide elected officials to file new oaths as a minor anecdote, the Chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals in Saranac Lake up to the north got axed for missing the same deadline. Political control of the Town Board had changed. The lack of an oath card proved convenient.

In 2000, two Nassau County legislators did not file their oath cards on time, although in that case it appeared that the cards had been signed but went unfiled by an assistant counsel. Republicans chose not to press the issue, using it only to poke fun at Democrats’ lack of coordination.

The written oath requirement dates to 1880. Many aspects of running elections and holding office in New York were being regulated for the first time, mostly in an attempt to reign in the Tammany political machine in Manhattan. At a time when electrical devices, telephones and cameras were rumors to many New Yorkers, a signature was the only proof of any promise to play by the rules. For a long time, the oath was required within 15 days, and it was usually filed along with a bond as security. The bond was required for all officials who could potentially handle money or public property, and was considered the more important public protection.

There have been hundreds of incidents when the failure to file the oath was made a public issue in local governments across New York, including cases of extreme manipulation. In 1965, Mayor Flynn of Yonkers found that 11 of the 12 members of the city’s ward supervisors had filed their oaths with the city but not with the county. He fired the 11 and immediately reappointed all but one, a political enemy.

Perhaps one positive upshot of the Vecchio affair will be to take the wind out of local inauguration parties, usually taxpayer-funded political rallies now exposed as lacking legal effect or significance.

A better outcome would be to establish one clear, 21st-century standard for oaths that will not be manipulated and reduce faith and interest in our governments.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net