It might not have reached Mark Foley proportions, but for local Democrats, a recent scandal at the Monroe County Water Authority has been the gift that keeps on giving.
This summer, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi released an audit of the authority, revealing its former director, John Stanwix, received a lavish compensation package to which he wasn't entitled.
For Democrats, that confirmed what they'd been saying all along about county government --- that it's opaque and unaccountable. Accordingly, they're trying to wield the scandal as a tool for reform.
And they've some enjoyed limited success. Earlier this summer, Democrat Legislator Travis Heider was appointed the minority liaison to the Water Authority board, a position that languished vacant recently.
But the Dems have a broader Water Authority reform agenda. First, they want the County Legislature to conduct its own investigation into the Stanwix affair. They also want to reorganize the Water Authority board to include, by law, members of both majority and minority parties. State law requires not more than five board members be of the same party: the county meets that requirement by appointing two Conservative Party members. (That last proposal comes from Heider, who says he's been frustrated in his role as liaison: not a member, he has no vote and he's been shut out of executive sessions.)
Lastly, they want the resignation of the three Water Authority board members who were on the board when the benefits were handed out and remain on it.
Now those plans appear dead. That's thanks in part to a bit of superb political theater by Republican Majority Leader Bill Smith at last week's Ways and Means Committee meeting.
Smith is an attorney, and it shows. By turns acidic and witty, he turned aside each Democratic proposal with an air approaching that of a savvy defense lawyer shooting down one prosecutorial argument after another, rather than that of a statesman.
(Perhaps it's a testament to the GOP's fear of the Water Authority scandal's fallout that Smith alone argued against the Democrats. The rest of his caucus --- and these are no backbenchers; Dan Quattro, widely expected to succeed Smith as Majority Leader, was among them --- kept quiet, even looking a little bored, as the debate raged around them.)
The first proposal considered called for the resignation of three Water Authority board members.
"I realize this doesn't have the force of law," said Legislator Paul Haney, who proposed it. "We can't force the members of the authority to resign." Nevertheless, he added, "I would hope they would take the expressed interest of this body seriously."
But that played directly into Smith's tactic, which was to equate the comptroller's Water Authority audit with a similarly damning one: the management of the fast ferry by the Democratic Rochester city government. Calling the referral "intellectually and morally dishonest," Smith began proposing an amendment using the same language but substituting the fast-ferry board for the water authority board as a target for his call for resignations. At the last moment, he yanked it, saying it'd be premature. As with the Water Authority, there are open investigations into the ferry, he said. Without knowing their results, he said, "it would be wrong for me to ask for those resignations."
Democrats leapt to highlight differences between the two episodes but the damage was done. Smith managed to link the two disparate debacles. And by jumping to point out the differences, the Dems took the bait, allowing the argument to be framed in terms of a comparison to the ferry.
Heider's resolution to launch a legislative investigation was similarly stymied by Smith, who demanded to know why another investigation was needed. (Besides Hevesi, the DA is reportedly looking into the Stanwix issue and the Water Authority has retained a special counsel to investigate.)
"I think we need to identify what we think are the deficiencies of the comptroller's report," Smith said.
Democratic legislators couldn't answer that challenge effectively.
On the final Democratic proposal, allowing the minority to appoint two members, Smith succeeded in making a relatively common-sense referral look like partisan posturing. (Caricaturing Heider's claim that having Democrats on the board would boost accountability, he pointed to Rochester's all-Democratic City Council and Philadelphia's model, which mandates that at least two councilmembers be Republican, regardless of voters' wishes.) Once again, Dems couldn't effectively argue their positions.
All three proposals failed by votes of 6 to 3. (Democratic Legislator Ted O'Brien recused himself, since his law partner Don Chesworth is the special counsel retained by the Water Authority.)
By contrast, two GOP proposals sailed through the committee. Minority leader Carla Palumbo tried to amend the proposal authorizing the special counsel, to require him to report his findings to the legislature.
When Smith rose to speak against the amendment, the Dems got a bit of rhetorical revenge.
Smith said he didn't hear the amendment, but added, "it doesn't matter."
"Because it came from a Democratic legislator," quipped Palumbo, drawing laughter. But, no, the amendment was out of order, Smith argued, since the proposal was only formalizing a contract with Chesworth that had already been executed, so nothing more could be added.
Palumbo's amendment was ruled out of order and the proposal passed unanimously.