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Outside Looking In

Wanted: A government that works

First published: March 01, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: February 27, 2015 at 4:54 pm

As I write this, the U.S. Senate has passed a bill that extends the funding for the Department of Homeland Security through this budget year, ending a stalemate in that chamber of attaching an anti-Obama rider to the spending bill.

But the House of Representatives stands far from the compromise the Senate reached. And there is no certainty that starting Saturday morning, the folks at the northern border crossings at Collins Landing, Ogdensburg and Massena would be getting paychecks for their work.

The House on Friday morning leaned toward a bill that would fund the department for three weeks. That is the current definition of “compromise” in the lower body of Congress — solutions that are so rife with brinkmanship that they are not solutions at all. Members of the tea party and other ultra-conservative congressmen actually are so unshakeably sure of their political rectitude that they have no shame about not paying the hard-working Americans who are charged with keeping us safe from everything from smugglers to terrorists.

No matter how this is resolved, no matter what the vote is, the damage has been done. Congress continues to demonstrate how out of step it is with the American public.

A CBS News poll showed that irrespective of party affiliation, a solid majority of Americans, 60 percent or more, oppose the shutdown of Homeland Security. And previous polls have shown that a majority of Americans also are in favor of reasonable immigration reform, something this Republican Congress has the ability to take real leadership on.

Instead, what we get is a House whose leadership appears unable to forge a consensus that is necessary to govern. At least in the Senate, there is, if not true bipartisanship, an acknowledgement that some policy changes are possible, and some are not. That permits decision-making that includes compromise and concession — which is what governing is all about.

This is not a party issue. This is an issue of a Congress so badly divided over issues that it would rather let the patient die than accept a hybrid cure.

It’s hard to accept that some of the elected officials who are most strident about the threat to American society posed by terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida are simultaneously the ones most likely to advocate shutting down Homeland Security in order to force President Barack Obama to abandon his executive order on immigration. The irony is, it appears none of them sees the contradiction in those positions.

There are voices of reason out there, members of the House who are in vocal opposition to the radical “tear it down” bent of their rabid colleagues. Two of them from New York have publicly announced they would support a “clean” Homeland Security spending bill in the best interests of the country.

One is the otherwise conservative Peter King from Manhattan. The other, and I say this with a great deal of admiration, is our own Rep. Elise Stefanik, who put the interests of her country and her constituents ahead of her party. This is an act of courage and of principle of which all in the 21st Congressional District should be proud.

Her intractable colleagues, however, are showing how unprepared they are to govern. Another King in the House, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, has loudly proclaimed that shutting off the funding for DHS wasn’t a problem because, “They get paid for their work, they just get delayed pay for their work.”

Hmmm. Perhaps the fact that this King doesn’t have an international border anywhere near his district makes him so callous toward government border employees. And I wonder, if several hundred of his constituents were DHS employees, would he be quite as dismissive of their plight?

The United States and the world are facing unprecedented danger from terrorist organizations. This is no time to shut down the agency that is directed to combat that danger.

And, from a longer view, we send representatives to Washington to govern. That is their job. That is why they are paid and given nice offices and staff to assist them. When they fail in their sole job — providing governance — they are the ones who are not earning their pay.

We could use a lot more people like Peter King and Elise Stefanik in Washington and a whole lot less like Steve King. At the end of the day, your average American wants a government that works.

And right now we don’t have one. More’s the pity.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Government through a frosted glass

First published: February 25, 2015 at 11:36 am
Last modified: February 25, 2015 at 11:36 am

New York state, at the direction of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has started a massive purge of emails of state employees that are 90 days old or older. With those emails, no doubt, will go any number of state documents that are supposed to be available under Public Officers Law’s Freedom of Information section.

The task is not being accomplished without protest from any number of good government groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, New York Civil Liberties Union and the Sunlight Foundation, among others, have registered their opposition to the practice. Their valid point is that there is no practical reason to do this, since the state’s new cloud-based email system has room to store about 30 years of emails for every state employee, and doing this thwarts the purposes of the Freedom of Information Law by permanently destroying state records.

While not all emails are subject to the law — there are exemptions for intra-agency communications and other things — many of them are, and with such a quick trigger on the delete key, many of them will be gone before anyone has the ability to seek their public release.

This will have long-range effects on efforts by the press and public to follow the workings of state government. Any effort, for example, to track a continuing issue will be cut off at 90 days. And while emails can be protected from deletion, this takes a conscious act on the part of each state employee. The state has issued a lengthy guidance on what should be preserved, but people who have read it have said it is terribly complex, and includes 215 categories of records that should be saved. The presumption that thousands of state employees will proactively protect the public’s right to know is only slightly less absurd than the presumption that those employees will study and learn the guidelines for which records to save.

When Gov. Cuomo stood for office five years ago, before his first term, he vowed to make state government more transparent than it has ever been. In the ensuing term of office, he systematically ensured that, if anything, the opposite is true.

He has micromanaged the state’s flow of information to a degree likely never before seen — try to get information from any state agency that hasn’t been vetted through the governor’s office. And any dedication to the Freedom of Information Law on the part of the state agencies has been eroded during the Cuomo years; I have a “pending” FOI request to the state Health Department that is now going on two years without a resolution.

The policy on deletion of emails just begs for more bad actions on the part of state officials — as though this state government needs more incentives to behave poorly. Anyone engaged in questionable action has a significantly diminished chance of being caught when systematic record destruction is a policy of that government.

The ethical morass that this state is wallowing in begs for the transparency that the governor promised five years ago. It isn’t at all comforting to know that the governor does not use email to discuss any state issues. The Associated Press reported in 2012 that Cuomo “instead makes frequent telephone calls and uses the PIN messaging system from his BlackBerry cellphone, neither of which leaves a record of the communication.”

The AP discovered this when it filed a Freedom of Information request for the governor’s official emails, and found out there were none.

And the policy that allows the destruction of emails after 90 days was set up by executive fiat, when the governor approved a policy that stated “The Executive Chamber adopts the NYS Archives’ policy with respect to e-mails but goes further to state that all electronic communications, whether by e-mail, text or Blackberry PIN, will fall under this policy.”

Bob Freeman, the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said that some 90 nations have enacted some form of freedom of information laws since he began with the committee in 1974. Many of them are ahead of the U.S. and New York state in the sophistication of their laws because the laws were written in the digital age.

New York’s law was not, and it suffers from that. Now only legislative amendment and court decisions determine how the law responds to technology that did not exist when the law was written.

Gov. Cuomo’s order on email retention is a massive step backward, from a technological standpoint. And, Mr. Freeman said, it appears to ignore a basic premise: it is the content of a record, rather than the record itself, that should determine whether and for how long it is a public record. That critical point has been trashed by this policy.

Thus sinks transparency. Thus sinks open government. And this further sinks the legacy of a governor who wants so badly to be judged to be great.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Time to put an end to polit-speak

First published: February 20, 2015 at 11:58 am
Last modified: February 23, 2015 at 10:37 am

We had a visit Friday morning from the nice young man U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik has appointed as her spokesman. He stopped by the Watertown Daily Times office to talk to us about press-related matters and to discuss how we can perhaps forge a better working relationship.

I think I shocked him when I told him the best way for us to do that is to put aside the polit-speak and meaningless party-line lip service and give us real answers to real questions.

Last week, in a story on the potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, we tried to ask Ms. Stefanik what that would mean for the north country and what she thought might be done to prevent a border closure.

Her reply? “Blame it on the Democrats in the Senate.”

Which, as I told her representative, is not responsive to the question. It is, rather, a regurgitation of the party line that I would suspect around 200 members of the House have, will or would spout to their local papers.

But we don’t need Ms. Stefanik to give us the party line — we can get that from John Boehner’s office or Mitch McConnell’s office or the Associated Press. What we need from Ms. Stefanik, and what every paper needs from its own member of Congress, is information on how events in Washington will affect the readers these papers serve. Because, as we pointed out to Tom Flanagin from Ms. Stefanik’s office, our readers are the constituents of the representative.

One of the reasons our government seems to be going off the rails is that spin and doctrine have taken over facts and opinions. If all a member of Congress can produce in answer to honest questions is disingenuous answers, it is the people who are poorly served.

To be perfectly honest, Ms. Stefanik is very new to her position, and she has already acquired a significant debt to the Republican Party for the support she received in her run for office. She may not be in a position to be an iconoclast at this point in her career, and that’s probably OK.

But ... she still owes the quality of candor to her constituents, and she still owes them information. It is not unreasonable, given the considerable economic ties her district has to the Canadian border, to want to know what will happen along that border if the Department of Homeland Security is shut down for lack of a current funding bill.

It is this kind of question that officials have to answer. Saying that it is the fault of Democrats in the Senate is like saying “Seven!” to the question “What color is that dress?”

Here is another caveat for the Homeland Security issue: Unbeknownst to us, Ms. Stefanik was touring the Middle East as part of her duties on the Armed Services Committee.

So getting her response to us wasn’t quite as simple as leaning in her office door and asking her. But, as I pointed out to Mr. Flanagin, a better response than what we received would have been, “Ms. Stefanik is out of Washington on congressional business, and we’ll get back to you.”

In my dealings with her, I have come to believe that Ms. Stefanik has the potential to be a fine representative of the north country in Washington. She is very bright and very quick on her feet. And as long as she speaks the truth, I don’t think she’ll ever embarrass herself or her district.

And I think she is better than the run-of-the-mill politician who survives on special interest PACs and verbal pabulum. But she has to prove that.

As for us, I’m instructing our reporters to stop putting self-serving and meaningless responses by any politicians in all of our stories. What’s the point? You don’t have time to read meaningless words, and we don’t have time to transcribe them.

Your representatives at every level of government owe you the duty of candor. It’s time to make them pony up.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Meth labs, coming to a neighborhood near you

First published: February 15, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: February 13, 2015 at 5:48 pm

It’s hard to keep up with the drug du jour.

The Watertown Daily Times and several other papers have been tracking the rise of heroin over the past couple of years, its use propelled by low cost and high availability. In many places in rural New York, the prevalence of heroin is being called an epidemic.

And judging by some Ohio papers I’ve recently read, much of that state’s rural areas are also facing a growth in the availability and use of “horse.”

All of which shows drugs for what they really are: a commodity, with price and use driven by the age-old rules of supply and demand. With heroin seemingly everywhere, the price drops, the use rises. At some random place in time, that will reach a tipping point, with demand outstripping supply, and the price will rise, and the use will drop.

As long as drugs can be treated as a commodity, and as long as we fail to find a way to make drug use unattractive that doesn’t involve prison bars, drug use will continue and drug dealers will walk among us.

And while heroin has been on everyone’s lips these past two years, it appears we are stumbling backward toward the time six or eight years ago when there were meth labs all over the north country. The Times has reported on seven meth lab busts since Christmas, little more than six weeks ago.

That is more meth labs than were reported busted in the total of 2014. And last January, we reported that St. Lawrence County had not had a meth lab busted since 2012.

Alas, that hiatus appears to be over. There have been meth busts in the past six weeks in all three counties, including a mobile lab that was busted last week by Watertown city police. The mobile labs are especially disconcerting; methamphetamine production relies on a lot of unstable elements (have you ever seen an accidental camp-stove-fuel fire?) and they must be cleaned up by haz-mat teams, so having them rolling merrily down the street through your crowded city neighborhood is not particularly comforting, personal safety-wise.

Arguably, meth users are right up there with heroin addicts when it comes to debilitating effects of drug use. It is highly addictive, especially when smoked; it can be used by smoking, injecting or taking orally. It can give an extended state of euphoria, which often carries a sense of being indestructible, certainly not something you want in an addict.

So after a lull, it appears that meth labs and meth use are once again ascending in the north country drug users hierarchy. As a commodity, it almost certainly never left, it just hit one of those periodic cycles where our wandering attention drifted over to the Next Big Thing — in this case, heroin.

I hate to think of young people strung out on crank, as crystal meth is known. Because it is so physically addictive, like heroin, it is a very difficult habit to shake.

It is relatively cheap, not the least reason for which is that its effects are more long-lasting than most street drugs. And it encourages its users to become producers and dealers as well; while the average guy on the street can’t manufacture heroin, anyone smart enough to use the Internet and shop somewhat circumspectly in hardware stores and pharmacies can build crystal meth.

We have heard for decades of the nation’s war on drugs. It has been about as successful for us as the Vietnam War.

Like whack-a-mole, every time a small dealer or meth manufacturer is grabbed over here, another one pops up over there to fill the void. We can’t carpet bomb the dealers and the manufacturers and the users because they are so much among us.

When you read about the heroin epidemic, keep in mind that heroin use, like other drug use, ebbs and flows on the drugs commodity market. It is the totality of that market that is disheartening and our inability to eliminate it that is our curse.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Sometimes nice guys finish first

First published: February 06, 2015 at 11:34 am
Last modified: February 06, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Sometimes, the skeptics are proven wrong.

And sometimes, nice guys finish first.

If you want some proof, look at state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

Mr. DiNapoli has had a remarkable career in public service.

He was elected to his local school board at the age of 18, becoming the youngest elected official in the state at the time.

He went on to serve in the Assembly in Long Island’s 16th District, he mounted a short-lived candidacy for lieutenant governor and, in 2007, was chosen by the Legislature to succeed Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who had resigned in a public corruption scandal at the end of 2006.

In 2010, he narrowly beat Republican candidate Harry Wilson, gaining a 200,000-vote victory out of 4.4 million votes cast.

In his next race, last fall, he was the highest vote-getter in the state and trounced his opponent, Syracuse comptroller Robert Antonacci, by 878,000 votes.

Mr. DiNapoli has been a breath of fresh air as comptroller.

In his first year in office, he sharply criticized the budget proposed by fellow Democrat Gov. Eliot Spitzer as proposing spending at an “unsustainable rate.”

He predicted that such spending would within three years create a $13 billion deficit.

Although Spitzer didn’t hang around long enough to see it, Mr. DiNapoli’s prediction proved to be prescient.

Even though Mr. DiNapoli was a Democratic assemblyman from a downstate district, when he donned the comptroller’s cloak, he took on the duties of that office with vigor.

He appointed a sagacious commission to look at the workings of the office and advise him on his duties.

So that even though his master’s degree was in human resources management, he stepped ably into the role as the state’s chief financial officer.

The comptroller’s office has always served as the state’s fiscal watchdog.

It conducted audits of state agencies, municipalities, school districts and fire departments, among other entities, and provided loose guidance on the state budget.

It continues those tasks but with a certain DiNapoli zest.

Under Mr. DiNapoli, the office has seemed to sharpen its pencils and broaden its view.

One example: rating municipalities and school districts for their financial prospects, generating lists of who is in dire peril, who is facing dire peril and who is at risk of facing dire peril.

While those listings have their critics — especially the school district ratings — they nevertheless alert taxpayers to districts in financial trouble and that they should pay attention to what their government or school district is doing.

Mr. DiNapoli’s office also has produced other guides whose primary benefit has been to taxpayers.

For example, the office recently issued a report on the soft condition of sales tax revenues across the state that graphically showed counties and municipalities that are at risk if they place too much reliance on sales tax revenues.

His report noted that while St. Lawrence County had seen sales tax revenues rise by 30 percent, it had raised the sales tax by 33 percent — meaning the county had an effective loss in sales tax revenues over the year.

This kind of comparative information is not easy to come by, and that has real value to citizens who can get a far clearer picture of how fiscally strong — or weak — their local governments are.

His reports encompass such things as school revenue streams, fiscal snapshots of municipalities and how the state’s industrial development agencies performed.

The comptroller’s website has a host of information in a very user-friendly form.

And unlike most other state agencies, that seem unable to give more than name, rank and serial number when contacted for information, people in Mr. DiNapoli’s office answer questions and return calls.

Nice guys do finish first, and New York has public officials of honesty, character and skill.

At a time in which the state has wallowed in yet another government scandal, it doesn’t hurt to take a look at one public official we can all be proud of.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Hey, let’s talk about landfills!

First published: January 30, 2015 at 3:35 pm
Last modified: January 30, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Pick the top 50 topics you’ll often hear people talking about, and solid waste management will be at least 50 places off the list.

Unfortunately, garbage and how we dispose of it and what we will be doing with it 25 and 50 and 100 years in the future is far more important than you would discern from its place around the water cooler.

We “recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.38 pounds per person per day,” according to the garbage experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s more than a half of ton of garbage a year, and more than 500 pounds of recycled material, for each of the 320 million Americans the U.S. Census Bureau says inhabit our nation.

In New York state, a protocol of reduce, reuse and recycle has been in place for about 30 years, and it has helped significantly reduce the amount of waste that is dumped in our landfills or burned in waste incinerators. Some but far too few companies have acknowledged the problem by creating more environmentally friendly packaging.

McDonald’s, as one major example, has abandoned the half-life-of-strontium plastic clamshell food containers for biodegradable paper and cardboard. Some but even fewer people have taken the effort to introduce composting systems that further reduce their waste stream, sometimes by significant amounts.

Still, we generate a lot of garbage, and our governments have to make sure we have some relative safe place to put it. The north country may not realize what a blessing the creation of the Development Authority of the North Country’s landfill in Rodman has been for St. Lawrence, Lewis and Jefferson counties.

DANC has built and operated a stable landfill, which has served the region for three decades now. And it has announced plans for a new area within the existing footprint of the authority’s land that could, with further advances in waste reduction and recycling, serve for the next 70 years.

A 100-year landfill, which is what the facility at Rodman will be if this final area lasts 70 years, is virtually unheard of in the world of waste. There are municipal landfills all over this state that would beg, borrow and steal to have a 70-year future on their 30-year-old garbage pit.

Of course, the 70-year life of the last cells is possible only if the north country continues to aggressively pursue waste reduction goals. The most important, and the simplest overall, is recycling everything that is accepted.

While the benefits of recycling can be translated to your wallet, many people still resist recycling. It takes effort.

Throughout Jefferson County, people are called upon to diligently sort their recyclable items — glass, tin, plastic, paper, cardboard, “light” cardboard all go into separate piles. In Lewis County, people sort glass, plastic and tin into one pile, and paper and cardboard into another; county employees sort the plastic, glass and tin into separate streams, and the paper and cardboard is baled and sold. In St. Lawrence County, which has made an arrangement with Casella Waste Systems, all recyclables go together to be sorted at Casella’s Ontario County materials recovery facility.

That single-stream system, you may say, sounds so simple. And Richard LeClerc, solid waste division manager for DANC, said that studies have shown that single-stream systems have a higher rate of acceptance than source-sorted systems. But Mr. LeClerc also said that the cost/benefit analysis of singe-stream systems is not so simple.

For example, he said, material-recovery facilities are expensive. While the most modern of them sharply reduce the costs of personnel, older or less sophisticated sorting systems — such as the one in Lewis County — are labor intensive. And a study by DANC some years ago showed that there is sufficient capacity at existing sorting facilities in the region, including the Oneida-Herkimer facility and one in Syracuse, to make construction of another one, here in the north country, a poor use of capital.

So the city of Watertown, as it looks at the idea of single-stream recycling, probably should grab a copy of the DANC data to factor into its calculations. The numbers don’t preclude single-stream recycling within the city, but they probably narrow the city’s options to collection and transportation to a facility in Central New York.

No matter the system, however, adoption of recycling is important to the region. Reducing landfilled material will extend the life of the regional landfill, perhaps by decades.

Adoption of recycling, which is essentially free, also makes economic sense. If you reduce your two bags per week garbage output in the city of Watertown to one bag per week plus recyclables, you will save $156 per year, at a minimum.

And you will become part of the stewardship of the world you inhabit. I wanted to save the tree-hugger stuff for last because there are so many practical reasons to recycle. But saving the planet isn’t so bad, either.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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The sound of silence

First published: January 25, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: January 23, 2015 at 4:53 pm

In Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s combined State of the State and budget address last week, he said a lot. The speech ran for about 90 minutes, and he covered all the high points of his political and budgetary agenda.

Among the most prominent mentions: Fort Drum, which very clearly has the administration’s support as the U.S. Army looks to trim personnel and perhaps retrench its facilities. Mr. Cuomo left no doubt that keeping Fort Drum alive and healthy is a top priority for his administration, and that support is important.

But on another area that is of critical interest across the north country and across the state, the future of a threatened hospital and nursing home industry, the governor remained silent.

The state embarked last year on a plan to bring about health care consolidation, in effect trying to stabilize failing hospitals by forcing affiliations with larger or more stable facilities and creating health care regions to try to end expensive duplication of already expensive procedures.

The state will use an $8 billion rebate from the federal government, brought back by the state’s effectiveness in reforming its Medicaid system. Last year, the state used almost $500 million of that money in a short-term program designed to keep teetering hospitals from toppling before its consolidation program could begin.

The main criteria for that Interim Access Assurance Fund was on-hand funds that represented 15 days or less of operating cash. Carthage Area Hospital, Massena Memorial Hospital and Lewis County General Hospital all received funding from that pool.

That program is now completed, to be replaced by Delivery System Reform Incentive Payments program. This $6.4 billion pool of money will provide assistance in planning, implementing and administering the reforms that the name implies.

The intention is very clear: to use consolidation and cooperation as the primary way to cut health care costs and stabilize the health care environment. While the access assurance fund was a Band-Aid, the system reform program is major surgery. For many hospitals, it will be a life-saving operation.

The hospitals that are approved as a performing provider system will form the hubs of the new health care system, with affiliated hospitals taking a subsidiary role. While none of the applications have been submitted yet, it is fair to anticipate that in the north country, Canton-Potsdam Hospital, Samaritan Medical Center, Hudson Headwaters Health Network, Glens Falls Hospital and Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital would be the most logical organizations to apply for performing provider status. The geography involved and the strength of the application will determine which of them are successful.

Hospitals that received interim funding cannot be performing providers, except public hospitals. Thus, both Massena and Lewis County General could, in theory, seek to become performing providers.

However, their financial conditions will militate heavily against that, as will their risk to taxpayers should they fail. While many at Massena Memorial would welcome a strong network affiliation (and removal from the ranks of municipally owned facilities), Lewis County General has shown no recognition that it may be unable to stop hemorrhaging money.

That alone would disqualify it from performing provider status. And if you are not a performing provider, you are going to be an affiliate of one.

This is an incredibly important topic here and across the state. The reform incentive payments program, with it’s $6.4 billion pot of money to hand out, would have to be considered one of the state’s premier initiatives. Yet Mr. Cuomo failed to mention it in his address last week, and most of the state’s residents have no idea what it will mean.

Tis a pity — this will reshape the future of health care across New York, and it needs lots of public exposure so that people can understand what is happening and why. We just didn’t get it from our governor.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Oh, Addie, say it ain’t so

First published: January 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm
Last modified: January 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm

This morning, federal Justice Department authorities arrested Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, on multiple charges of fraud and abuse of his position.

The allegations are that Silver used his leadership position to enrich himself to the tune of $4 million that he had funneled to himself through law firms with which he had affiliation. The charges are serious and the speaker is looking at serious jail time if he is convicted.

While we must respect the concept that we are all innocent until proved guilty, it isn’t unreasonable at the same time to suggest that in a case like this, the perception of wrong-doing is sufficient for the speaker to voluntarily step aside while he is either defending himself for these charges, or making arrangements to respond to them in some other way. If Silver is innocent, his voluntary transfer of power to another Assembly member while this process is proceeding would do a lot to restore at least some faith to a shaken electorate. And members of his own party in the Assembly would be well advised to help him make this decision.

So what has happened? There has been no measured response from the Democrats. Many are refusing to comment. Others are suggesting that the presumption of innocence should rule. A few are aggressively attacking the charges in a fierce but perhaps short-sighted defense of the speaker.

And, based on an interview with WWNY-7 news, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell. D-Theresa, is one of the latter. Here are a number of quotes from the WWNY interview:

n “I still believe he can continue to be a strong and effective leader.”

n “This is only the position of a couple of lawyers. It has yet to be seen whether these allegations have actual merit to them. ... This may be just an attempt to use the judiciary to influence policy, such as outside income of legislators.”

n “None of this case has been put before anyone.”

n “This may be far more politically motivated in an attempt to rattle those of us who are working toward funding for our schools and creating jobs in our communities.”

It’s hard to characterize these comments as anything better than political pandering. It isn’t hard to consider some of them absurd. For example, who, exactly, would be behind a plot to “rattle those of us who are working toward funding for our schools...”? Preet Bharara, the prosecutor for the Southern District of New York who has been notably successful in blowing past politics to put a lot of bad actors in jail? Is he against school funding or creating jobs?

Ms. Russell has refused to talk to the Times about the Silver arrest. It’s probably just as well, if the drivel she offered WWNY is an example of how she really feels about this situation. Presumption of innocence is one thing; suggesting the leader of half of the state Legislature can just keep on doing his job as though nothing has happened after his arrest on public corruption charges is irresponsible, knee-jerk, politics as usual.

Ms. Russell barely squeaked through the November election. Her blind political attachment to the downstate Democratic power structure is one reason why her re-election was so tenuous. The position she is staking out now, after Silver’s arrest, only serves to reinforce the notion that our assemblywoman has more loyalty to her party than she does to either her constituents or the ethics of government.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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In Turin, the public is the loser in council dispute

First published: January 18, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: January 16, 2015 at 4:40 pm

A Turin town councilwoman is suing the Turin Town Council to gain access to the town clerk/collector’s office, which is conveniently in her home.

This tops the “Are you kidding me?” folder for 2015. That an elected town official has been banned from the town’s records office is almost impossible to comprehend. What, you may wonder, has she done to deserve this?

Well, as far as we can tell, the councilwoman criticized the clerk’s meeting minutes. Watertown Daily Times reporters have repeatedly asked what offense Councilwoman Julia Ielfield has committed. And the best anyone can come up with is that the clerk, MeLinda W. Maciejko, feels “threatened” because Ms. Ielfield took issue with the clerk’s minute-taking.

Clearly, Ms. Maciejko has some fairly extreme sensibilities. I once had a pretty big guy threaten to “obliterate” me if I didn’t stop writing about various unfortunate actions he was taking as a public official, and I did not ban him from the newspaper office. Nor did I stop writing about him.

Ms. Ielfield’s sins hardly seem to rise to the level of a threat of bodily harm, yet the Town Council has taken the clerk’s side in this little tempest. When Ms. Ielfield filed an Article 78 lawsuit against her colleagues, one councilwoman called our Lowville office, incensed that we wrote about the lawsuit.

Hello? We write about any lawsuit against public officials because the public has a right to know when someone is alleging their officials are doing something lawsuit-worthy. We’ve also written about this dispute and about the office ban because it is clearly a sign of a problem in Turin government.

There are many issues at play here. The first is, are the people of Turin in general being well served by having a town clerk whose hours are set whenever she hangs an “open” sign in the window of her residence?

Mrs. Maciejko is paid $11,500 by Turin taxpayers to provide a host of public service and record-keeping tasks, including issue all manner of licenses, provide all manner of copies of public documents and act as the registrar of the municipality. Those taxpayers should be able to have reliable hours, at a public location, where those services can be provided.

The salary Mrs. Maciejko pulls down includes $8,300 as town clerk and $3,200 as tax collector. Both of those jobs require interaction with the public — and with fellow Turin officials. The council allows the clerk/collector to work from home because she has young children.

But the Times, among thousands of other companies, has employees with young children and we don’t let them work from their kitchen. Certainly no public official whom the public has so much interaction with should be doing so, not in 2015.

When I started writing news stories about local governments, the first town board meeting I covered was in a cozy little parlor/office in Marshall Slauson’s house. He was town clerk, and the council met there once a month to buy sluice pipe, audit bills, approve minutes and do all the varied business a small-town government must do.

But that was 43 years ago. And within a couple of years of my first meeting, every town I covered had public meeting rooms and town clerk offices to accommodate the public.

And so it should be. Times have changed, and public officials have to change with them.

So Turin’s decision to allow this cozy little arrangement with its clerk/collector may very well work out nicely for the clerk, but not so well for the public. Members of the public, I point out, who pay the clerk’s salary.

If Mrs. Maciejko held regular hours in a town office, there would be no question that the town would be unable to ban a council member from there. The council apparently believes, however, that having public space in a private residence allows it to do something that deprives a fellow elected official of her basic rights without any due process.

That the town attorney has participated in this farce is shameful. That the Town Council continues to perpetuate it should make Turin voters wonder just who they’ve elected to represent them.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Gamblin’ Andy

First published: January 15, 2015 at 3:24 pm
Last modified: January 15, 2015 at 3:24 pm

It should be little surprise to anyone that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the man who has led New York state full-tilt into casino gambling. Andy, it turns out, is a gambler of the riverboat family.

I don’t see how you could reach any other conclusion when you examine his popular Regional Development Roulette. Annually, New York’s Regional Economic Development Councils are forced to compete for state development money. It’s a giant poker game in which no one has yet had to go all in — but stand by.

Because the governor today upped the ante, if you will, asking the seven upstate regions to compete for $1.5 billion in economic development funds he intends to pare out of the $5 billion in “surprise” money the state will take in this year. Under Andy’s table rules, three regions will emerge with $500 million each, and the other four will be sent off with a home version of Upstate Monopoly.

It isn’t bad enough that significant areas of upstate New York are lagging so far behind in the economic recovery that has come to the metropolitan New York, Capital District and Niagara Frontier areas. Now the governor is going to ask all the areas that can’t shake high unemployment, nonexistent job growth and stagnant wages to spin the state’s wheel to see who comes up with their ball in the slot and who goes home in a freight car with his or her pockets turned out.

While this may excite Gamblin’ Andy, it begs the question: with $1.5 billion in the pot, why not give EACH region $215 million for economic development. Or, if there really is concern about the most heavily suffering areas, why not apportion this $1.5 billion on a graduated basis, with $300 million for the most depressed region, $250 million for the next most dire, and so on, with the goal of allowing all regions enough to actually improve each region’s economy?

With either of these proposals, there would be no true losers. All these economically bereft areas would receive help from the state. Under Gamblin’s Andy’s plan, three regions win big and four get bupkus. That means that three win, four lose. In the Olympics, you expect that. In spreading out money for economic development, you would hope for a more measured and fair plan.

This idea has no place in state government. New York’s business climate is already being blamed for driving companies and people away, and studies show the state has one of the most onerous and poorly distributed tax burdens in the country. Now the governor is acting like a carny pitchman, inviting regions in the state to “step right up and take a shot at the brass ring.”

While the state Legislature hasn’t shown it has the backbone to reject many of the governor’s hare-brained schemes, they should step in and stop this one. Time to pry the deck out of Gamblin’ Andy’s hot, sweaty hands.

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