Editorial Roundup: New York

Dunkirk Evening Observer. August 1, 2022.

Editorial: LEGISLATURE Why not let voters decide on number?

It makes sense why legislative Democrats want to decrease the number of Chautauqua County legislators.

With Republicans holding a 15-4 majority on the county legislature, Democrats are looking to increase their voice in the county’s legislative body. Winning elections — particularly in rural areas — has been difficult for Democrats. Their other avenue is to look to decrease the number of seats on the legislature and, in so doing, decrease the number of Republicans on the legislature.

That said, the idea still deserves some discussion. It’s been 10 years since the last legislative downsizing from 25 to 19 members. That downsizing was a reflection both of a desire to decrease the cost of government and the fact the county’s population was mired in an inexorable decline. That population decline isn’t changing.

We should acknowledge the political reasoning for the downsizing proposal and then have a serious public discussion about its non-political merits. Could it reduce costs, even minimally? Would shrinking the legislature have a major impact on county residents?

In our opinion, this discussion belongs in the hands of county residents. After all, it is taxpayers who pay for the Chautauqua County Legislature. It is taxpayers to whom the Chautauqua County Legislature is ultimately responsible. And it is taxpayers who will need to take their issues to their legislator whether there are 17 legislators or 19 legislators.

Not everyone will like Legislator Susan Parker’s idea to shrink the Chautauqua County Legislature. But everyone needs to appreciate Parker’s desire to let the public decide.

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Jamestown Post-Journal. August 4, 2022.

Editorial: State Needs To Give Real Teeth To Its Open Government Rules

The New York Coalition for Open Government is absolutely correct when it says Chautauqua County legislators should use Chautauqua County provided email addresses for official business.

So it’s good to see Chautauqua County agrees with the Coalition for Open Government and is in the midst of providing a county email address to all legislators. We also note, it’s good that legislators put their phone numbers on the county website so constituents can contact them by phone and have provided a link to legislators’ private email addresses. It’s more than many other counties have done, according to the coalition.

The move the county is making to a public email address for legislators should be copied by any other town or village government, or school district, for that matter. Emails where government business is conducted should be archived and preserved as governmental records subject to FOIL. One never knows when one day’s deleted trash email is an important piece of the public record.

But it is another recommendation that catches our eye — and it should catch the eye of Democrats in Albany, too. The state needs to create an entity with the power, budget and staff to monitor compliance with and to enforce state open records and open meetings laws. There are far too many local governments for a small, non-profit agency to monitor compliance and the state Committee on Open Government has never been tasked with ensuring compliance.

In our opinion, the fact the Coalition for Open Government continues to find issues in its regular reports is a sign that New York state needs to step in and properly fund an open meetings and open records agency. And, while we’re at it, open records and open meetings legislation needs to have some real teeth for governments that don’t follow the law — including state legislators who love to conduct important public business behind closed doors.

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New York Post. August 3, 2022.

Editorial: How New York got an entire ‘Let them loose’ justice system

In two outrageous acts of junk justice, Judge Leticia Ramirez set free a man allegedly caught in The Bronx with a rifle and 500 rounds of ammo on the same day she set $5,000 bail for a murder suspect. Count it as fresh proof that New York needs not just better laws, but better jurists.

Bronx prosecutors requested that accused rifleman Matthew Velardo be held on $50,000 bail, but Ramirez freed him. She also declined to remand accused killer Vernon Gowdy — who has 15 prior arrests as well as a prison stint in the 1990s — to Rikers, instead setting a low bail.

Ramirez, a civil court judge presiding in Bronx criminal court, was hit with an ethics reprimand in 2017 for using her position to try to get her son — a convicted murderer — out of state prison. She had also abused her position to aid a friend fighting a gambling charge by writing the judge in that case.

Her defenders say she was merely obeying the state’s no-bail law. “With the recent criminal-justice-reform laws a judge must consider the least restrictive form of bail to ensure the defendants return,” said Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the state Office of Court Administration — a day before Gov. Kathy Hochul insisted the laws have now been fixed.

Indeed, setting a high bail for Velardo and Gowdy seems within Ramirez’s discretion, however limited. Why is she even on the bench?

Well, Manhattan voters elected Ramirez to a second 10-year Civil Court term in November 2020. But the system often uses Civil Court jurists to help out in Criminal Court, even in other boroughs.

Of course, it’s typically a County Committee that chooses judicial candidates, and the Democratic choice is a shoo-in in most of the city. Which means the same Democrats who pass no-bail and Raise the Age laws in Albany have a big hand in selecting jurists like Ramirez.

And, no, it’s not just her: Last April, The Post found that a Bronx gangbanger who was cut loose by one judge only to allegedly murder an innocent man months later was set free once more by a different judge.

Hochul suggests that it’ll only take some “continuing education programs” to get judges “to do their jobs” and start jailing more perps. In fact, Ramirez and others are all too likely to hide behind the “least restrictive conditions” mandate until the law is further clarified.

Again, it’s New York’s Democrats who’ve given us the entire “let ’em loose” system, with bad laws and bad judges (and some awful district attorneys, too). Voters’ best hope for change is to send those Democrats a clear message by voting against all of them this November.

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Albany Times Union. August 2, 2022.

Editorial: A question of openness

Nominees for a new state ethics board will be vetted for their ability to keep secrets. That wasn’t the problem with the old one.

In a questionnaire for prospective members of the fledging state Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, a question on how they will promote transparency — among a host of other things — is all of 44 words long. A question on the need to maintain secrecy, however, stretches for 144 words.

If that’s a reflection of the priorities of this new commission, it’s off to a bad start.

Secrecy, after all, was one of the problems with the commission’s failed predecessor, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. JCOPE’s rules prevented the public from even knowing how individual commissioners voted, leaving the public in the dark about whether these political appointees were secretly protecting their patrons, allies and cronies.

That created an environment for an insular body that was unaccountable to the public in any meaningful way – unaccountable for what it did, and unaccountable for what it didn’t do. And when secrecy rules were breached, it wasn’t in the service of inform the public, but to leak information on a commission vote to then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The questionnaire was designed by a committee, composed of law school deans or associate deans from around the state, that will review the nominees for the commission after they’re named by the governor, Assembly speaker, Senate majority leader, minority leaders of the Senate and Assembly, the comptroller and attorney general. (We’ve already expressed our concern with public officials appointing their own watchdogs, but that’s another matter.)

The question on openness is among the shorter ones in the questionnaire, asking how prospective members would ensure that “integrity, fairness, accountability, transparency, and independence” should guide the commission’s work.

By comparison, the question on confidentiality is the longest. It discusses the reasons for confidentiality and asks for detailed responses on processes and protocols, and even how they would design a code of conduct regarding confidentiality. It also asks whether they would resign, or vote to remove a fellow commissioner, for violating confidentiality.

The message right from the start seems to be that confidentiality is a far more serious concern than transparency. We can think of at least a few more questions on openness that would be worth asking: Should commissioners on an ethics body feel free to speak their minds on non-confidential matters? Should they be allowed to explain their votes publicly? Should they be allowed to publicly voice disagreement with the outcome of an investigation, or the failure to undertake an investigation at all? Should all questions from the press be referred to or vetted by a public relations person?

Perhaps the review committee feels that the need for transparency is so self-evident that the question doesn’t need much explanation or specificity. Perhaps it will give as much weight to that answer as it will to the response on secrecy.

Don’t get us wrong: There is a place for confidentiality on an investigative body like this, just as there is for police agencies, prosecutors and grand juries. Investigations can be compromised, reputations unfairly tarnished. The issue here is the apparent emphasis on secrecy over transparency. Both are essential.

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Advance Media New York. July 31, 2022.

Editorial: Gov. Hochul’s COVID response review is not independent enough

Gov. Kathy Hochul will hire an independent consultant to analyze New York state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The task is to “identify what worked and what did not and examine how the state could have improved its response,” and to create a playbook for future emergencies.

There’s no question an “after-action review” of New York’s pandemic response is necessary, considering the magnitude of the public health disaster that befell our state. More than 72,000 New Yorkers have died, millions became ill, and the school and work shutdowns ordered by the state altered the lives and fortunes of many millions more.

The question is how “independent” a consultant hired by the Executive Chamber, and reporting back to the Executive Chamber, can be. Hochul can do more to assure New Yorkers her administration won’t interfere with the consultant’s work or suppress findings that might be politically damaging.

Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, provides a cautionary tale.

Early in the pandemic, the Cuomo administration required nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients, likely seeding new infections among this vulnerable population. A year later, Cuomo staffers rewrote key portions of a Department of Health report to obscure the true number of COVID deaths in nursing homes. The death toll was 50% higher than had been reported by the state, according to investigations by Attorney General Letitia James and Syracuse.com’s Tim Knauss. The scandal was one of many contributing to Cuomo’s decision to resign in August 2021.

With Cuomo gone, Hochul came under growing pressure from the families of nursing home patients, Republicans in the Legislature and good government groups to undertake a review of the state’s pandemic response.

In May, a coalition led by Reinvent Albany and the Empire Center for Public Policy urged the governor to take a page out of the way plane crashes are investigated, likening the pandemic’s human and societal toll to “many hundreds of jetliners crashing.” They wanted Hochul to appoint a commission of experts to conduct public hearings, review state records, interview current and former officials (by subpoena, if necessary) and deliver a final report to the public.

Instead of appointing a commission, Hochul is hiring a consultant under state contract. The consultant, to be chosen by September, will report back to the governor within six months and issue a final report in a year.

The state’s request for proposals emphasizes the need for the review to “maintain a high level of independence.” It’s not clear how that will be achieved if the consultant reports directly to the Executive Chamber.

It’s also not clear if any of the consultant’s work will be done in public view, or even if the public will be allowed to participate. Will it include county and city officials who had to implement state public health directives, whether or not they made sense for their communities? Any competent review of the pandemic response should include interviews with former or current administration officials who planned and executed it. Unlike a commission appointed by the governor or the Legislature, a consultant does not have subpoena power to compel testimony from reluctant witnesses. A consultant seeking future work with the state also might be susceptible to pressure to soft-pedal, change or even bury its findings.

At minimum, Hochul could allay some of these concerns by publicly committing to deliver the consultant’s final report — in full and without interference or changes — directly to the people of New York.

At maximum, she could reverse course and use her executive powers under the Moreland Act to appoint a commission of experts to investigate the state’s COVID-19 response. A Moreland commission may be no less susceptible to interference from the governor (witness Cuomo and his Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption) but it would have more tools at its disposal to get to the bottom of controversial and momentous decisions that were made before we knew anything about how the virus spread.

Looking ahead to the next pandemic is just as important as looking back. New York state must make the proper investments in public health, surveillance and preparedness while the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic are still fresh.

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