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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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January 9, 2014

Destroying The County Government

The Legislature of Albany County takes a big step toward ineffectiveness and illegitimacy by reducing representation just a little bit

The Albany County Legislature, the ruling body of what arguably may be the most effective and fiscally sound County government in New York State, is getting all ready to reduce the number of its elected seats from 39 to 35. You might recall that last month the Legislature had been planning to reduce representation from 39 seats to 25, a reduction of 14 seats. But now in January it looks like the elimination of four seats is perilously close to becoming a done deal on the 16th of this month.

There are plenty of reasons why this institutional self-mutilation is a plan so terrible that it looks like pure stupidity. The corporate media, the propaganda arm of the Corporate Political Agenda, has been beating the drum for reduction of representation in local legislatures for years. Those people, along with certain local politicians, are delighted with this latest proposed reduction of local democracy, even if it is a smaller reduction than what they had hoped for. Of course they are delighted, both popular democracy and representative government are incompatible with the drive to establish corporate dictatorship at all levels of society.

Back in December the apparent motivation for this political self abuse was the desire to get out from under a lawsuit that is calling for the creation of one more minority-based voting district, but according to several lawyers who have testified at public hearings that won’t work. Reduction of seats will not make he lawsuit go away and the Legislature may be forced to seat another black person in their chamber whether they want to or not. But now in January it looks like the only motivation left for reduction of seats is the desire by certain politicians to gradually exclude the voting public from representation in County government.

My Neighborhood, Light January Snowstorm At Dawn
My Neighborhood, Light January Snowstorm At Dawn

Last month I wrote a lovely seven page attack on the original proposal to reduce County seats to 25, but the political leadership fooled me and everybody else who believes in American Democracy. But suddenly, on the 29th of December, the Legislature voted down the original proposal and “sent it back to committee” apparently to die. We all thought the reduction proposal was effectively dead. My beautiful long rant was no longer relevant, or so I’d thought.

But the push to reduce representation didn’t die. The other day Legislator Doug Bullock alerted me to the latest sneaky plan to cut four seats, that it is likely to be pushed through the Legislature and voted on before this month is out. That’s Mr. Bullock doing what a Legislator is supposed to do, inform the public about power grabs by scheming officials. Power grabs like this one.

Martinsville Hill, Lincoln Park January Light Snow At Dawn
Martinsville Hill, Lincoln Park January Light Snow At Dawn

Sending the plan back to committee last month turned out to be a ruse to misdirect the voting public, it appears that the plan all along has been to eliminate four seats. Why only four? To put it simply, there are certain County Legislators who, shall we say, don’t automatically take orders from majority leader Frank Commisso Sr., who is the effective head of the Legislature. These troublemakers need to be ousted so that Commisso can conduct business as usual without objections.

Although I haven’t heard him say so, you can be sure that Mr. Bullock will be one of those Legislators who will have his seat eliminated. Doug has always been a troublemaker and has never quietly obeyed the majority leader. If it comes to this, it will be interesting to see which three other Legislators Commisso wants to get rid of most, which ones show him the least obedience.

The whole proposal last month to cut 14 seats was like a test of public response. If hardly anybody (other than the usual suspects who habitually go out in public to defend Democracy) objected to a massive reduction in December, well, even fewer people will object to reducing four seats sometime in January. The idea is to slip this by and turn it into a done deal and hope no one riots and burns down the majority leader’s house in the 15th ward of Albany.

Looking Up At ML King Boulevard, Lincoln Park, January, Snow, Dawn
Looking Up At ML King Boulevard, Lincoln Park, January, Snow, Dawn

If I haven’t been clear so far, let me explain the motivation for reducing seats in the County Legislature. The main point is to exclude the public from County government, even if just by a little bit.

The best summary I’ve seen so far of reasons for not reducing the size of the Legislature were put forth in a letter published in Metroland back on December 19. The letter was written by man about town, troublemaker and math teacher Tom Ellis, who is one of that dwindling breed, a committed defender of American Democracy and of the Bill of Rights. This list is not at all comprehensive, but Mr. Ellis has provided some of the more obvious reason why we need complete representation at the County level:

1. greater racial diversity;
2. legislators have smaller districts and are thus theoretically closer to voters;
3. easier for less wealthy candidates to get elected;
4. more representative of the public;
5. more legislators are available to serve on standing and ad hoc committees;
6. rural areas of the county are better represented;
7. decreases the power of party bosses and elites; and
8. reduces the likelihood bad legislation can be rushed through the legislature.

In addition Mr. Ellis added a ninth reason, perhaps the most important of all. He writes, “...Our society is becoming more complex with each passing year... A larger legislature has more collective expertise and can bring a more informed debate to new and challenging issues than a reduced-sized legislature.” No one person can effectively govern even a small local government effectively, government of a modern society of any size requires a lot of collaborators and needs constant oversight from the governed.

State Buildings Above The Bath House, Lincoln Park, January, Snow, Dawn
State Buildings Above The Bath House, Lincoln Park, January, Snow, Dawn

Dictatorial regimes fail to be effective because the dictator is a power bottleneck that stifles administration rather than governs. An excellent example is the 20 year reign of Jerry Jennings as the dictatorial mayor of the City of Albany, a time during which Albany neighborhoods disintegrated, jobs disappeared, the population steadily declined and the City was mismanaged into near bankruptcy. Jennings spent an inordinate amount of his 20 years using City resources to harass perceived political opponents so as to maintain his hold on power, that was his prime consideration as mayor.

Whatever one thinks of the new mayor Kathy Sheehan she is clearly not a dictator. Nor would current circumstances permit her to be a dictator if she tried to be one. Ms. Sheehan has to work with the same forces that rebelled and brought down Jennings, this includes a Common Council that does not automatically defer to authority like they did in the past. The current majority on the Common Council was popularly elected and hold no particular allegiance to either the mayor or to backroom power brokers.

But suppose, just suppose, that Ms. Sheehan wanted to seize control of the Common Council, what would be the most effective way for her to do that? Why, by reducing the the number of seats on the Common Council, from 15 to say 12, or 9, or better yet to 7 like the miserably unrepresentative Schenectady City Council. If you want to dictate policy, you can’t really do that if the voters continue to elect representatives who don’t always go along with the dictated agenda.

Tree, Lincoln Park, Dawn, Snow, January
Tree, Lincoln Park, Dawn, Snow, January

That’s why we need Legislatures. These are the people we choose to watch over the hungry power brokers, to keep the scheming potential dictators in check, and to report back to the voters. We The People don’t have time to watch these bozos, we have other things to do. If our representation is taken away, or reduced a little bit now and a little bit later, then the dictators and power brokers can play with our money and our communities and we have no way to counter their power other than with extreme disruptive actions.

In the long run a Legislature with reduced representation will actually increase inefficiency. Reducing debate and concentrating power into a few hands vastly increases the likelihood that poor and disastrous decisions will be made in the back rooms. This is what I mean by a power bottleneck, all one dictatorial power broker can do is run in place to maintain his or her position, real economic development for the community is stifled and strangled before it can rattle their little power and money playpen.

Mr. Ellis managed to find and isolate the main arguments of the proponents of reducing representation, he discovered four. Well, at any rate, these are what the pro-corporate reductionists have been saying in public:

1. increase efficiency;
2. improve bipartisanship;
3. promote increased competition in elections; and
4. save money for taxpayers.

The first two, “increased efficiency” and ‘improved bipartisanship,” are doublespeak ways of saying, “eliminate debate of issues and proposals and limit input from the voters.” Of course dictatorship increases efficiency in the short run, there’s no one to object to the dictator. As for the third item, “increased competition in elections,” that’s simply putting a nice spin on the more truthful “force candidates to become beholden to big money.” Spin with a big smirk.

Lampost, Dawn, January, Snow, Lincoln Park
Lampost, Dawn, January, Snow, Lincoln Park

Really, the only argument worth considering is to “save money.” The Charter Review Commission’s skimpy report of last January said reducing the legislature from 39 to 25 members might save County taxpayers $400,000 a year. Maybe saving four hundred grand a year in a budget of more than half a billion dollars is a ridiculous reason to drastically reduce the size of the Legislature. But even if this is true, which it probably isn’t, is this a justification for excluding the public from government?

But wait, with the new proposal to eliminate only four seats this argument, really the only one, becomes even more idiotic. Using this unsupported savings of $400,000 as a guide, eliminating four seats will “save” a lousy $114,000. Funny how nobody has bothered to make and publish this simple calculation. So much for that justification.

You can be sure that our elected officials will find some way to instantly disappear this paltry savings, if it exists. It has always been a wonder to me that anybody still falls for that “save money in government" Austerity line. When was the last time saving money by cutting back services resulted in any sort of benefit to taxpayers? Has that ever happened? Every single time that we are handed this Austerity crap the essential services disappear, the alleged savings disappear and our taxes go up again as usual.

Schoolbus Picking Up Kids, My Neighborhood, January, Snow, Dawn
Schoolbus Picking Up Kids, My Neighborhood, January, Snow, Dawn

The League Of Women Voters of Albany County, once an active bastion of American Democracy, has deeply debased itself by enthusiastically supporting the original proposal to eliminate 14 seats in the County Legislature. Presumably they also support the reduction by four seats. President Lois Griffin says,

The League of Women Voters 0f Albany County (LWVAC) strongly supports reducing the number of legislators to the County Legislature. At present, Albany County has the highest number of legislators, but that does not mean we are most representative.
It does mean we are paying for inefficiency.

That almost sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? I don’t understand what she means by “inefficiency.” Is that the word she uses for public debate and thorough consideration before enacting legislation? Does she seriously think that by reducing representation that representation will increase? I’ve known Ms. Griffin for a long time, I have to say that I am shocked to hear such nonsense from such an intelligent and well-informed person.

Trees In Lincoln Park, Dawn, January, Snow
Trees In Lincoln Park, Dawn, January, Snow

At first glance the County government resembles a corporation, with an executive and the Legislature acting as the board of directors, but corporations and American governments are very different. In a corporation the executive and the board are answerable only to each other and to the investors, that is, answerable to the people giving them money. But in a republic style government like we currently have with the County, each of these officials not only have to win elections, they have to account for themselves and their actions at all times to the public.

What often happens inside corporations is a battle for power between the board and the CEO. Sometimes you see a precarious balance develop between the two, but more often than not, either the board dominates or the CEO does. In extreme cases a CEO can win the power struggle so decisively that the corporation morphs into a hereditary absolute monarchy, the most well known example is the government of North Korea.

What we have here in Albany County is a government that is under assault by schemers who are treating the County government like it is a corporation. It appears that most of our elected County Legislators are completely clueless that they are gradually being relegated to the status of a corporate board by their executives. In this case, we’re mainly talking about boss Frank Commisso Sr., but also County executive Dan McCoy who has made it clear that he is more than happy to see less representation on the Legislature.

This is going on all over the country, local governments are being turned into little local corporate style dictatorships. The most spectacular current examples are going on in Michigan, where the elected governments of no less than six Cities have been effectively dismissed by the State government and replaced by a dictatorial Emergency Financial Manager (EFM instead of CEO.) Nine percent of of Michigan’s population is ruled by unelected local dictators, which adds up to 49 percent of the Black population of Michigan.

Lincoln Park, Snow, January, Dawn
Lincoln Park, Snow, January, Dawn

Can corporatization happen here? New York State has a system in place to dismiss elected local governments that, like Michigan, is derived from a 1903 federal Supreme Court decision called Dillon’s Rule. During recent budget negotiations in the City of Albany, I heard Mayor Sheehan several times invoke the specter of a State takeover and dismissal of the elected City government. Several other local governments reportedly have been close to the possibility of having their power stripped away and replaced by a dictator.

Dismissals of local governments and replacement by a corporate style dictatorship conforms with a cornerstone of corporatism called The Fuehrer Principle. This term, which predates the infamous German Nazi regime of the early 20th Century but was enthusiastically embraced by them, could also be called The Leader Principle. By this organizational system every member of government is answerable solely to the next highest ranked person, and that person to the next highest, all the way up to the totalitarian CEO. In other words, civil government at all levels is organized like the military. We know how well that worked out for the Germans.

Liberal American society, which is based on political accountability by the citizens, cannot be turned into a corporate dictatorship overnight. However, over my nearly six decades of existence I’ve watched our society corporatize one piece at a time, a “privatization” here, a curbing of personal freedom there, a reduction of an elected Legislature over there. Eventually these corporatizations accumulate, we all get used to these impositions, and eventually everything in America will devolve into corporate tyranny followed by societal collapse.

More Bleak Landscape, Lincoln Park In January, Snow At Dawn

More Bleak Landscape, Lincoln Park In January, Snow At Dawn

The forces pushing for the corporatization of my country, although representative of an elite minority, are tremendously powerful and relentless in their execution of their agenda. These anti-democratic forces have always been here since the beginning of this country in the late 1700s, their goal ultimate goal has not changed. They are the ultimate Conservatives, they want to return this country to what it was before the Liberal Revolution of 1776, a monarchist society where an elite nobility lorded over a vast majority composed of servants and slaves.

Now, some may insist that I am overreacting, how can reducing the size of one County Legislature by a mere four seats be equated to the ultimate overthrow of the Bill of Rights and all that it represents. Like I said, corporatization is a disease that is slowly creeping, it infects and destroys each part of society a little at at time. This current push to reduce representation is right in front of us here in Albany, it is our responsibility to fight it, our battle, our fault if it is carried out.

One thing that I almost never hear mentioned is that when the population of this country was much smaller, the members of the federal Congress and the members of the State Legislatures represented fewer people in their respective districts, and thus were more answerable to The People. As the national population rose and the voting franchise was extended the number of representatives did not increase to keep up with the population. In many cases the number of elected representatives were cut, a process we can see is still going on.

As a result government, little by little, was made more distant from the people that they were supposed to serve. A simple cure for this continuing problem? Perhaps we can consider increasing the number of seats in our various Legislatures, thus increasing representation and accountability. A good place to start is right here in Albany County.

Cars At A Traffic Light On Morton Avenue, January Snow At Dawn

Cars At A Traffic Light On Morton Avenue, January Snow At Dawn

Today, with instantaneous communications and a collective memory stored in a free and open internet, perhaps there is a better way for the citizens to regulate the day to day actions of the governments than to elect representatives. Perhaps. Maybe someone will think of something. But right now all we can do is fight to keep what we have. When and if we defeat the corporatists then we can talk about improvements to our political system. But for now our task is to defend the system that we have.


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