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It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right

Governor Andrew Cuomo has given us quite a lot to think about in the last couple of weeks, and not all of it is pleasant.

He has told us that municipalities and school districts are not consolidating services and constituencies fast enough, and costing the taxpayers money.  He’s told us that the schools are going to see no more money from the state in the coming budget.  He’s told us the budget is coming out, and we will all have to tighten our belts a little more.  New York, he says, can’t afford to do any more.  Sure, there is a tax cap, but the Governor assures us there is no mandate relief in site for our counties, towns, or schools.

“Do more with less,’ just about sums it up.Do more with less

It’s disheartening, then, to see this headline in the Kingston Daily Freeman:  NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo allows state police superintendent to draw $85,000 pension, plus $136,000 salary  According to the AP story, Governor Cuomo has filed for a waiver to pay State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico his NYPD pension while he is earning the full salary and benefits afforded his current position.  Cuomo’s reasoning for breaking his previous pledge not to do so? “…it had become “financially impossible” for him to keep his post without it.”  Somehow, while working that old saw, the top people in our state government cannot manage to do more with less.

I don’t know Mr. D’Amico’s age, his abilities, or his financial situation. It’s really none of my business. I would not presume to tell him which of his necessities or luxuries to forgo, but I am sure he’s earned whatever he has.

I do assume that, after being nominated for the post by the Governor, and gaining confirmation by the Legislature, Joseph D’Amico is qualified for the job.  He has already lasted longer than his three predecessors combined.  That is not the question.  Being paid by the state to work while taking your full retirement benefit is.

If you cannot afford to retire, keep your job. This is the choice millions make every day, and they make a whole lot less than $85,000 per year. If you cannot afford to do the job for what it pays, your choices are a little broader. Negotiate for more, don’t take the job, or find one that can support you.  The answer, from the Governor’s point of view, should not be to give a back-door pay increase, but to do it openly if he feels it’s warranted.  How can we hold our local police and fire personnel to higher standards than the state holds theirs?

indianapublicmedia.org photo

indianapublicmedia.org photo

I am not implying any malfeasance, criminal activity, or cover-up.  What Governor Cuomo has done is perfectly legal, and, judging by the numbers, is in keeping with past practice.  I am saying that this gives at least the appearance of impropriety, and will most likely infuriate the taxpaying and voting public when they find out about  the “double dipping”.  Telling said public that that we are down to 44 waivers for double dipping from the previous 110 is not likely to improve their mood.  Our own Mayor Shayne Gallo can serve as an example to Governor Cuomo.  Do more with less, and do it above-board.

This is too important to be left as a policy with a work-around.  This must be dealt with as a law.

As a solution, I propose the following: The State Legislature should craft and pass a bill outlawing the practice for all public employees. Except in cases of extreme hardship (say, currently earning twice the federal poverty line or less), no public employee, elected, appointed, or hired, may draw funds on the NYS Pension Plan during their time of employment.  Should you retire, begin drawing funds, and then resume work as a public employee, payments are suspended until you leave such employment.  Your private employment after leaving government service does not affect your State Pension, unless you work for a registered lobbyist.

If, however, the Governor feels that the pay for any job is not high enough to keep the proper personnel, he should be free to take the matter up with the legislature, and have them include the increase in the next budget.

The legislature should not be allowed to exempt themselves, their staffs, or anyone from the law.  Legislators and the Governor would, in this one case, avoid the appearance of unethical behavior for passing such a bill.  Waivers would become a thing of the past, and we would all be a little better off.

You can help.  Our own New York Assemblyman Kevin Cahill has spent a great deal of effort on opening up the workings of our government to it’s people.  I am sure he would be interested in hearing from you in support of such legislation.   Newly minted State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk has said she is looking forward to working with us, as well.  Just scroll over the name and click.  You will end up at the official contact page, and you can let your legislator know what you want.

Cahill and Tkaczykregisterstar.com photo

Cahill and Tkaczyk
registerstar.com photo

Some will say that this approach is naive.  It may be, but I am sure that it far more naive to expect that our elected officials will make a move to change the way things are without our encouragement and support.

-Andrew Champ-Doran

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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Kingston2025: Are We There Yet?

town hall meet•ing (toun hôl me’ting) n. US

1. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) an assembly of the inhabitants of a town wherein the citizens and elected officials gather, ostensibly to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and peacable assembly, but quickly sink to hurling invective, screaming, accusing, and/or threatening each other and future generations with all manner of vile consequences.  [ME tun halle mete < OE tun heall metan]

At least, that’s what it’s become lately.

Civil War imageOne of the reasons I started this blog was because we see far too much of the above.  People get so hot under the collar in so many public fora that they devolve into an “us vs. them” battle.  At times, it is more Civil War than civil discourse.  KingstonBarn is meant as a venue to calmly analyze problems and propose creative solutions.  When I see better results achieved, I want to point that out, too.  Well, last Thursday night, in a relaxed Common Council Chambers, I saw what we can aspire to be.

We had a town hall meeting for the Kingston Comprehensive Development Plan.  Alderman-at-Large Jamesvertical icon for Kingston 2025 Noble, Chairman of the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, explained the rules of engagement.  No shouting each other down, no singling people out by name, be respectful, keep it moving.  Each of a dozen tables had a Committee Member Moderator, whose job was to get as many ideas on big 2′ x 3′ paper as people could come up with, list them in categories (Strengths of Kingston, Problems of Kingston, Opportunities of Kingston), and rate the top three from each group.  After all groups were finished, the top three from each were presented to the room as a whole, and every individual voted for their best in the room, signified by distributing six orange dots to your choice.  Noble, as Chairman, set the rules, but what he told me after showed his key to the success for this stage of the process.  He stepped back, he said, and did not try to run things from the head of the room.  His approach was to “…set it up and let it happen.  We want people to help, and this seems like the best way to go about it.”

Was this a diverse group?  You bet.  I sat at a table with Tom, the real estate agent/Moderator, Huntley, an architect who splits his home between New York and Kingston’s waterfront, Vince and Linda, a long-married couple who are long-time residents of Meaghar School District, Emma and Sean, a couple of Onteora High School students here on a civics project, and Beth, who works with Kingston Land Trust and the Hudson River Estuary Program.  Me?  I’ve lived with my beautiful bride of twenty years and our teenaged kids in Kingston’s Third Ward since 2005.

I counted over 100 people in the room.  All of them, from the city officials to the visiting high schoolers, were engaged in the work.  The task at hand, while serious, was not heavy or daunting.  People were involved.  If there were 120 folks there, I am sure there were 600 points for consideration.  Many groups around the room duplicated some of the work of the others, but the boards were filled with creative solutions and thoughtful, interesting views on opportunities and challenges.  The answers covered the entire spectrum, from simple (bolt the street signs so they can’t be turned by vandals), to intricately complicated (simplify zoning and development regulations to encourage new construction and business).  We need the plan to solve the problem.  We haven’t worked on one as far-ranging as this in over 50 years, I’m told.

great-depression-soup-lineWe are not done yet; not by a long shot, as my dad used to say.  This is the end of the first stage of creating a comprehensive plan for Kingston’s future.  The Planning Committee will have to reach conclusions from the data assembled.  The Common Council, and the Mayor will have to create a plan out of those conclusions.  Kingston’s City Planner Suzanne Cahill and her office will have to implement the plan, and we, the citizens of Kingston, will have to carry much of the load along the way.  We will get to 2025, but what shape we are in when we get there depends on the work we are willing to do.

The challenges that face Kingston’s future are no smaller or larger than they were last month, but with so many pitching in on successful town hall meetings like this, they become a little more managable.

Are we there yet?  No, but we have made a good start.

Andrew Champ-Doran

***

Editor’s note:  To follow the progress of the Kingston 2025 Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, click on the Kingston2025 logo above.  You will be linked to the City’s website at the Comprehensive Development Plan’s page.  -abcd

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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The “Amen!” of the Damned

Welcome back!

Twenty one years ago today, the love of my life said yes, and agreed to become my beautiful bride.  Moby Dick was published 120 years before that.  The events are unrelated, except for the fact that they are two of my favorite things.  This is also the time of year when the demands of my job pull me in to longer, more intense days.  I have been focused more exclusively on family and work.  I haven’t written as much as I’d like, and I apologize for that.  With any luck, I’ll get back to posting every week or two.  Big changes are coming to KingstonBarn, and I am excited.

The big change for today is our first guest blogger, Rabbi David Nelson.  As promised at the outset, this is a forum for discussion of our local and area issues.  Well, this greeted me in this morning’s inbox, and I thought it too good, too pertinent, and too thought-provoking not to share with you.

As always, I invite you to join in the discussion, either in the comment section, or by writing you own post for this blog.  Just send it on to the email address below.

Andrew Champ-Doran
KingstonBarn.wordpress.com
champdoran@gmail.com
 

Dear friends,

‘Tis the season! Debates! Polls! And those ever-popular television attack ads! What does it all mean? Consider this morsel from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 11a): “Raba ben Mehasia also said in the name of Rabbi Hama ben Goria in Rab’s name: If all seas were ink, all reeds pens, the heavens parchment, and all men writers, they would not suffice to write down the intricacies of government.  ” Explaining the last few words, “…the intricacies of government…,” the renowned 11th century French scholar known as Rashi writes, “The depth of its [i.e., the  governing authority’s] heart/mind.  For it must have the heart/mind to pay heed to numerous countries, to the tax that is levied, to numerous wars, and to numerous laws all on one day [i.e., all at the same time].”

This ancient observation and its medieval explanation seem to hold a wise truth that has been completely overlooked in our society (which, we are fond of pointing out, is the most participatory, open, and enlightened political system the world has ever known).  In fact, the business of government, even in the ancient world (and, as the Talmud would say, how much the more so in our world) is extraordinarily complex. Acts of Congress regularly run to thousands of pages. Supreme Court decisions are far shorter, but often even more arcane.  And the details of military planning, diplomatic negotiating, fiscal policy, and the delicate balance of power between the federal government and the states are mind numbing.  Yet with all this, we have come to accept a political process that boils down our choice of leaders to 30- or 60-second TV ads and 90-minute debates in which the candidates take every question as an opportunity to recite a well-rehearsed speech filled with clever lines (“zingers”) and talking points.

I would be highly suspicious of any claim that religion-in-general or any specific religious tradition offers clear support to one candidate or another.  But religion, taken seriously, would clearly warn us against reducing  any political process or choice of candidate to simple, brief, bumper-sticker witticisms.  Jewish tradition in particular encourages us to immerse ourselves in the details and ramifications of ideas.  Such activity is so highly valued that numerous portrayals of the afterlife imagine a huge, celestial study-house where God presides as the head teacher, and all the souls of the righteous spend their time studying the law with divine guidance.  In a strange and wonderful twist, one rabbinic  scenario reports a heavenly study session followed, as is the custom, by the recitation of Kaddish (Kaddish is often thought of as a mourner’s prayer, but in fact it is simply an extended praise of God and is recited not only by mourners but at the conclusion of any traditional study session).  At the end of the recitation, the righteous in Heaven all answer “Amen!”  And then the wicked condemned to Hell also shout “Amen!” — apparently they were listening to the discussion of law as well!  The “Amen!” of the damned so moves God that he commutes their sentence and sends angels to bring them out of the pit, bathe and clothe them, and escort them to Heaven.  It seems there is endless reward for those who are willing to take the time to think through issues of law in all their true depth and complexity!  It kind of makes me wonder about the values of a society that has fallen deeply in love with a tweet limited to 140 characters!

L’shalom,
David

David Nelson
Campus Rabbi
Visiting Asst. Professor of Religion
Bard College

*Editors note:  Rabbi David Nelson has been a teacher and Chaplain at Bard College since 2008.  In his time there, Rabbi Nelson has published periodic emails to all subscribers on Bard’s local webmail.  True to rabbinical tradition, Nelson’s entertaining meditations inspire reflection and often quite spirited discussion among his readers.  Today’s post first appeared in the same forum on 18 October 2012, and is published with the author’s expressed permission and blessing.

Rabbi David Nelson’s biography, as published by the Bard Chaplaincy, is as follows:  B.A., Wesleyan University; M.H.L., rabbinic ordination, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion; Ph.D., New York University. Associate director, ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America; 2005– ); director, Jewish Life Connection, Washington Township, New Jersey (2001–05); rabbi and principal, Garden City Jewish Center, New York (1980–85). Has taught at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, New York University, Adelphi University; guest lecturer at University of Virginia, Wesleyan University, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Vassar College. Contributing editor, Shma (1995–2000). Author of Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World.  He can be contacted at nelson@bard.edu 

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Meet Before High Noon

This week’s Daily Freeman headline, Ethics veto threatened: Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo calls the measure ‘unconstitutional’, casts the Mayor as Gary Cooper, standing in the middle of the deserted dirt street, waiting.

The adoption of the provision described in the story would effectively ban any elected member from running for reelection, unless they could afford to do so entirely on their own.  Quoting from the Hoffay measure, ‘a city officer or employee, the mayor and department heads shall not directly or indirectly ask anyone to contribute to the political campaign of a city officer or employee running for any elective office or the political campaign of anyone running for elective city office.”

As a result, if I am Alderman Dunn or Mayor Gallo, I can’t set up a “Friends of Matthew Dunn” or “Committee to Reelect the Mayor” fund, as that would be indirectly asking for funds for a campaign.  I could not ask anyone to put up a yard sign, or carry a petition on my behalf, as that would constitute a contribution, “to the political campaign of a city officer or employee running for any elective office or the political campaign of anyone running for elective city office.”

This limits those that can run for any city office to people who do not work for the city in any capacity, and to those who do not currently hold office, and eliminates the ability of any of those people to even support anyone for any city office.  That not only severely curbs their freedom of speech, but imposes a de facto one-term limit on every elected office for the city.  Mayor, Alderman, City Court Judge; none are exempt. Term limits should be left for the voters to decide.

I understand the conflict of interest inherent in sitting elected officials becoming elected officers within the party committees, and legislation against that conflict is supported by the Mark Davies email cited by Alderman Dunn.  I do not read that email statement, though, as support for no committee membership, no campaigning, or no support of another campaign.  That would be a misdirected stretch, at best.

Knowing that conflict is often more interesting than agreement might make it easier to see why words like “Veto” and “power”, make better copy than “pass” and “compromise”.  This is the point, though, where we often pull the wrong thread, and the process unravels.  It’s wiser to follow the right thread all the way through.

Here is a link on the City of Kingston’s website to the two legislative proposals:  Ethics Legislation and Financial Disclosure Proposed by Mayor Gallo Ethics Legislation Proposed by Alderman Hoffay  Click on the individual links, and compare the two at the source.  I’ve read them both, and I’ve formed some opinions about the legislation before the Public Safety/General Government/Audit Committee.

Get rid of the provisions causing the problems.  The rest of the law does not hinge on the inclusion of these few provisions.  While we don’t need one or two party strongmen directing the ballot, the Political Activities by High Level Officials prohibitions, as they appear in the Hoffay/Dunn legislation, are written too broadly, and are a liability.  Does the Common Council want to spend so much time and effort and goodwill in the lengthy process of debate and passage, only to find out their reward is a losing legal challenge?  Of course not.  Other (more likely and equally bad) outcomes would be a Mayoral veto, or that the bill dies in committee, and another piece of important legislation meets its inevitable all-or-nothing fate.  The common sense approach would be move quickly on the rest, and leave the argument behind.  If, after passage, the Common Counsel find a need for some provisions of this sort, craft and pass an amendment to the law.

Beyond that, there is room only for agreement.  In spirit, the two bills are essentially the same.  Both define conflict of interest and present a clear path for recusal.  Both call for tighter controls on officials commensurate with increasing rank.  Both want to close the “revolving door” some government officials and their lobbyists share.

Mayor Gallo’s proposal is more detailed and precise, as are his definitions.  His calls for a two year period between leaving the city position and dealing with city officials again, as opposed to the one called for in the Hoffay/Dunn proposal.  The list of city officials covered by Gallo is more extensive, and restrictions they face generally seem a little tighter.  He also includes copies of all disclosure forms to be completed by the employees.  For those reasons, I support the Gallo legislation.  It is ready now.

Alderman Dunn is working in the right direction on this legislation.  The intent and instincts are clearly right, but the execution, in these minor instances, threaten to sidetrack the debate, and eventually the whole bill, into the thick bog of committee consideration until it can no longer emerge.  Dunn wants us to keep in mind the purpose and intent of the laws we are considering.  He is right.  We need to open up our government, and increase the integrity we’ve let slide in too many offices for too long.   He has already agreed to post all of his committee’s agendas on the city’s website before the meetings, and he’s done so.  I applaud that, and the willingness of the parties involved to keep working on this much-needed legislation.  With care, what we get will be far better than what we have.

This is a negotiation, not a standoff.

-Andrew Champ-Doran

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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