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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Charter reform redux

Let's get ready to rumble: So tonight the Albany Common Council is set to have a vote on whether or not to put the charter reform initiative on the november ballot, after it gained a new lease on life in the state court system. As you may recall, a citizens petition was completed (and then held up in a court battle) that would give the city voters an opportuinty to reform the city charter in November through a ballot vote. The reforms would marginally reduce the mayor's power in favor of the city council in a few administrative areas of governance. Now the council must approve the petition as a final step to getting it on the ballot. If they approve, the voters will vote on the reforms in November, with a bare majority needed for passage.

I don't have a whole lot to add - i've already said my peace on the substance and the politics before - my thoughts on strong mayors vs. strong city councils and how this might be a classic political win-through-losing situation (also here).

I guess I don't think the proposed charter reforms are substantively bad ideas - in fact I think at the end of the day this is rather much ado about nothing, at least on the merits of the substantive changes in power distribution between the council and the mayor. But i'm always skeptical of any monkeying with the institutions of government for political purposes. As I've written before, there are good and bad aspects to having a strong mayor. There are also good and bad aspects of having popular participation in the form of ballot intiatives. [why haven't you written about that?-ed. This isn't my day job. What do you do?-ed. Shut up.] But it is worrisome to me when people are changing institutions not because the institutions are bad, but because they dislike the people within the institutions. That's what happening here. People don't want to reduce the mayor's power, they want to reduce Jennings' power. And that makes me a skeptic, just as I'm skeptical of the Clifton Park redistricting, though i think it's a good idea substantively.

But, realistically, political philosophy has nothing to do with this anymore (despite the pleas on both sides) - this is a sheer test of wills between a controlling political faction and a rising one. The political stakes have long since dwarfed the ramifications of the institutional changes. But it sure is fun to watch! It is also important to remember that this is an insanely complicated political thicket. There are at least four layers: how you feel about the substantive changes philosophically, how you feel about the initiative method of changing things, how you feel about the likely political results of the changes, and (if you are a current politician) how you think supporting/opposing the measure will help or hurt your own fortunes. Throw in the possibility of strategic voting (i.e. vote yes tonight at the council meeting because you think the measure will fail in November and you want to bury its proponents) and it just becomes crazy.

If you'd like to enter the fray, jump on over to Democracy in Albany, where you can get the pro-reform side of things, and also read an anti-reform letter from Jack McEneny.

It certainly has been fascinating to see the political cogs-a-grinding downtown. I wonder what old Dan O'Connell is thinking right now?
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At 1:25 PM , Blogger democracyinalbany said:

Your statement about this just being an anti-jennings effort is not something you can not support, can you? That would just be your opinion. You and I both agree that Jennings will be gone by 2009 if not sooner. I believe these issues are important to the future of Albany beyond jennings. I know others do as well.

However, beyond the politics of the matter, which are rather complicated these days as you astutely point out, this is no longer about the reform. This is about the rights of citizens to have a say in how they are governed AND their right to vote. Jennings has done everything he can to take away these rights. And now McEneny has joined in. Those efforts are anti-democratic. If Jennings has simply allowed this to move forward (as the law allows) this would be a non issue. Put it on the ballot. Tear it to shreds before the election. And get it voted down. That would be how it would work in a functioning democracy. What Jennings and McEneny are doing is wrong (despite also being dumb from a political standpoint). What do you think?    

At 1:36 PM , Blogger Matt said:

I concur with much of what you say. I think Jennings is being incredibly stupid, politically-speaking. I don't give reform better than a 50/50 chance on the ballot with his attack machine going. He should just put it on and try to defeat it if he doesn't like it.

Philosophically, I would bicker with you a bit about the democratic nature of this. Sure, "letting the people vote" has a nice ring to it, but there are down sides to the initiative process. Look at California - they can't raise property taxes, they yanked out a governor, and if the courts hadn't stepped in they would have no services for illegal immigrants whatsoever, not even schooling. I think this shows some of the flaws of the initiative system - citizens are far more persuaded by interest group money and inflamed passions than legislators are. They also tend to be less informed about complicated issues. Bottom line - i'm not sold on popular referenda being god's gift to democracy. I'm generally more comfortable with representative democracy.

That said, I think this charter refrom movement is more than your run of the mill California ballot initiative - it is a good representation of what is undoubtedly a citizen movement in the city. And one coming from citizens who have largely been left out of the process in the past. So i think it's a good thing for the politics of the city.

I agree Jennings is gone soon, but i also will stick to my statement that this has been brought on by hatred of Jennings, with institutional reform simply instruemntal in the process. I don't doubt that you want the council to be stronger for the good of the city, but i do think if you had your choice of mayor (but the council opposed him), you'd want a strong mayor. That's all.

Will you be there tonight? I was considering going down and observing.    

At 2:06 PM , Blogger democracyinalbany said:

I'm going to keep beating this dead horse.

The law says that what Albany Civic Agenda has done is legal.

Jennings and others tried to take away that right. They have been unsucessful so far because the law isn't on their side.

Regardless of whether you like the law, what form of government you prefer, why California is doomed, etc...none of that is the issue. The law has granted the citizens of Albany the right to do what they have done. And then the rest of us will get to vote on the issues. The Mayor,Judge Spargo and others are trying to take away that right. I think too many people are taking that far too casually in this discussion.

Honestly I think the Mayor having no checks and balances on $5 million of spending or who he appoints to run the departments is dangerous. If I was able to put someone in office who I thought was enough of a professional to do a good job at being Mayor and helping the city, I would expect this would be a non-issue. The only reason these reforms would be an issue is if the Mayor wants to hide what he does and doesn't want to hold department heads accountable. Don't you think the police chief should've been fired the day he admitted to lying to cover up an illegal investigation? The system is flawed regardless of who the Mayor is. People who are good at their jobs don't fear scrutiny. They welcome it.    

At 2:23 PM , Blogger Matt said:

Ok - but doesn't the law also allow the council to reject the petition tonight and doesn't the law also allow people to challenge the petitions in court?

I mean, at some level you must be making a non-legal argument, right? If the council says "no" tonight, you're not going to say "well, that's the law, that's it." Of course not. You'll complain that they stifled democracy.

I'm not saying that's a bad complaint. I'm just pointing out that your argument is more than just a legal one based on rights.    

At 2:50 PM , Blogger democracyinalbany said:

I think it is clear to all that the Mayor's petition challenge was weak and had nothing to do with the spirt of the law. They were throwing off registered voters who left out their middle intitial. He has the right to challenge the petitions. But he failed. And, once again, looked pretty bad in the process.

the law says that the common council can vote it down. 8 of them said they would support this before it all started and there were any petitions. Personally I think some of them doubted the ACA's ability to get over 3,000 valid signatures as that is a lot of work so they were ok with supporting the idea because they didn't expect it to get to this point. If someone committed to supporting this but than votes against it I think you could make a case that they were stifling democracy. Or at least that they were caving in to the Mayor who is definitely stifling democracy. Or perhaps that they weren't planning on more than one more term anyway, so what is the big deal.

However, let's wait until later tonight or tomorrow to see what I will say. As you have pointed out, sometimes you can win while losing.

PS. And sometimes you can be an Assemblyman who can write a really dumb letter in support of suppressing democracy. I'm not sure if there is any winner in that one.    

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