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Looking for signs of life in the Lej


Last year, the prestigious BrennanCenter for Law and Justice at New YorkUniversity branded the New YorkState legislature the most "dysfunctional" in the United States.

The phrase stuck. Even people who'd never read the report hopped on the Albany-bashing bandwagon. The momentum the BrennanCenter generated carried past the splash of the initial press coverage and, improbably, into last fall's state legislature campaign.

Most incumbents won re-election anyway; you're more likely to die than be voted out of this state's legislature. But this spring, New York had its first on-time budget in two decades.

Now a small group of Democratic candidates for MonroeCounty's lawmaking body is trying to recreate that public outrage --- and the subsequent push for reform --- on the local level.

No one is more central to this effort than Paul Haney. In his mid-sixties, the former county finance director has observed local county government in action for longer than most people

"I really think the root of most of the problem is that the legislature has become an inert body," he says. "If the legislature was somehow taken off the face of the earth, I think it'd take six months for anyone to notice."

When he's out campaigning and tells voters that he's running for a seat in the CountyLegislature, Haney says, they often ask him what that is.

"The reason for this is that the CountyLegislature doesn't do anything," he says. "It is in no sense of the word a deliberative body or an investigative body." The Lej has ceded much of its authority and responsibility to the county executive, Haney believes, to the detriment of good government practices.

That's why he and fellow Democratic candidates Ted O'Brien and Ted Nixon gave a manifesto they recently released this unwieldy name: "Making the County Legislature Relevant: Proposals to Restore the Legislative Branch of Government in MonroeCounty."

The four-page plan lays out a handful of specific proposals to reform the legislature.

It's not the sexiest subject matter.

But it is the little stuff that, added to still more such little stuff, that becomes the foundation of a functional democratic government --- the boring, quotidian substance that draws out the "servant" element in a public servant. And it's the stuff that, if neglected, can drag a government down. Haney believes it already has. Here's what he and his fellow candidates want to do about it:

First, they want to shrink the size of the legislature. At 29 members, MonroeCounty's lawmaking body is larger than that of either NassauCounty (19 members) or ErieCounty (15) --- this despite both counties having substantially larger populations than Monroe.

Haney explains the push for a smaller Lej as a way to empower the body: the larger a legislative body gets, the more individual legislators become removed from the process, he says. When that happens, Haney says, the legislature "becomes very susceptible to becoming the executive's rubber stamp."

Haney, O'Brien, and Nixon also want to end the practice of gerrymandering --- the system of carving out goofy-looking districts whose voter registration numbers help ensure that the party in power remains in power. That practice, the three Dems say, "disgraces democracy."

They propose two fixes: forming an independent, bi-partisan commission to do the redistricting, and drafting criteria to guide the process with the aim of keeping districts "compact."

These changes would require creating something called a "charter commission" --- a local version of a constitutional convention. But other reforms the three propose could be made almost immediately:

Limit the CountyExecutive's leasing power

With a proposed county budget for 2006 that's tiptoed to just south of a billion dollars (yes, you read that right), it makes sense to ask who gets to spend all that money. For Haney, Nixon, and O'Brien, the answer "Maggie Brooks" comes back too often for comfort.

They want to restrict the county executive's ability to enter into leases. County law does place some limits on the county executive's authority. For instance, the executive can't spend more than $5000 on "goods and services" without the legislature's approval. But the only restriction on leasing property is a five-year time limit.

"The effect has been that rent expense incurred by the county has increased by 285 percent since 1994," the three charge. That opens the door to abuses, like overpaying vendors who also happen to be prime contributors to the party in power, they say. A cap on that authority --- in the form of a dollar figure (they suggest $50,000) --- would help tilt the balance of spending power and oversight back to the legislature.

Take back control of the water authority

Haney, O'Brien, and Nixon also want to put oversight of the Monroe County Water Authority back in the hands of the legislature and tighten existing laws that require its board to be bi-partisan. (Instead of Democrats, the Republican administration has been appointing only Republicans and Conservatives).

Since development (or lack of it) often hinges on the availability of water service, the water authority has a lot of power. Add an annual budget of $50 million and planned capital improvements of $110 million, it's easy to see why Haney and company want to see more hands-on supervision from the legislature.

Strengthen the county's audit committee

They're trendy at higher levels of government these days, but the concept of an audit committee was forged in part here in MonroeCounty. The idea is to have an independent group that monitors county finances. Lately, however, "the committee has withered nearly into extinction," the three say, meeting rarely and in secret, and not saying much of anything about county finances. Haney, O'Brien, and Nixon want the audit committee to hold open meetings, and participate in --- and report on --- the county's yearly audit.

Mandate legislative oversight of the county's local development corporations

Since 2000, the county has created four of these quasi-private businesses to do things like operate the former Iola power plant and run the CivicCenter parking garage. (A fifth, the Ren Square corporation, is a similar creature but was created by the transit authority.)

"A local development corporation is actually worse than an authority," says Haney.

That's because the corporation's officers are appointed solely by the county exec and they have the power to float bonds, yet most of their business is conducted in private. Haney wants to make the corporations' boards and budgets subject to the Lej's approval, curtail their borrowing power, and require increased reporting to the legislature.

Many governmental reforms, like some of those being proposed now in Albany, take time and require major, even constitutional changes. Not these last four, according to Haney.

"These are all things that are within the purview of the legislature," he says. In theory, they could all be enacted at the next CountyLegislature meeting.

Part of the difficulty with passing reforms like these, though, is that the party in power has to give some of it up.

Republican legislators contacted by City Newspaper were not immediately able torespond to requests to comment for this article. They've often failed to respond to calls for specific legislative action from Democratic legislators in the recent years as well. Last year, a proposal by former legislator Mitch Rowe, giving tax abatements for downtown housing development, passed the Lej. With that exception, no DemocratCityspoke with could recall the last time one of their proposals was adopted.

Longtime Democratic legislator Bill Benet, who's stepping down this year because of term limits, says the majority employs three main tactics to stifle minority ideas and legislation. One is to block Democrats' proposals from ever being entered into the Lej's official packet of monthly proposals.

Another is to refer legislation to the administration for more information. (Imagine if instead of a congressional committee passing legislation on to the full body, they sent it to the White House --- then waited to hear back before taking further action.) Proposals referred this way rarely make it back the Lej, Democrats say ("Prescription for Partisanship," City, September 15, 2004).

A third way the Republican majority can squelch minority voices: table the proposed legislation. The Dems don't have enough votes to get their proposals back onto the agenda, where they can receive an up-or-down vote. And when legislative proposals are never considered, the public rarely hears about what's in them and can't weigh in on the issue.

The result?

"It's been a continual process by which the legislature cedes more and more authority to the administration while at the same time there's less and less public debate on an issue," says Benet. "That's the heart of the free speech form of democracy. If you don't have that, you don't have a democracy."

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