Archive for the ‘Government Reform’ category

We Need Public Financing Of Elections

April 17, 2012

Political campaigns are where power and cash meet. Politicians need lot’s of money to run for office. People seeking jobs or government business provide the money politicians need. The current campaign process truly is a “pay to play” system in that the best way to get a politicians attention is by donating money to their campaign.

Less than .5 percent (1/2 of a percent) of New York State residents contribute to political candidates. New York politicians can collect up to $60,800 per donor for a statewide race. That compares with about $5,000 per contributor for most other states. There are no limits on contributions to political parties.

Andrew Cuomo raised $24 million when running for Governor of New York State. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in campaign years has amassed a war chest of $1 million, in a city that is the third poorest in the nation with a shrinking population of 270,000. Those campaign dollars represent a lot of IOU’s that have to be addressed one way or another for a politician to continue receiving needed funds.

People donate money to political candidates with an expectation of getting something in return and they are usually not seeking good government. What is typically sought by campaign donors are jobs or government business contracts.

A lack of money prevents many people from seeking public office or from having their ideas heard in any meaningful way if they do run. Public financing is an important way to address the influence obtained by big political donors and the advantages afforded to incumbents.

In 1988 New York City adopted a partial public financing system, which currently provides participating candidates six dollars in public matching funds for each of the first $175 that an individual city resident gives to their campaigns. This formula makes a $175 donor as valuable to participating candidates as a $1,225 donor is to non-participants.

According to a report by the Campaign Finance Institute:

In New York State in 2010, only 6% of candidates’ money came from donors who give $250 or less. In contrast, 78% came from non-party-organizations (such as PACs) and individuals who gave $1,000 or more.

According to the Campaign Finance Institute, New York City’s public financing of campaigns has significantly encouraged more candidates, more small donors and more public interest in elections. A city candidate can get $6 in public money for every $1 raised, up to $175 per donor. As a result, 37 percent of the contributions to participating city candidates are for $250 or less. Only 5 percent of state donors give less than $250.

We need public financing of campaigns to encourage more competition and participation in elections.

Should Elected Officials Be Required To Resign Before Seeking Another Office?

April 1, 2012

Recently I learned that the City of Philadelphia Charter requires city elected officials to resign their position if they want to run for another public office. Six years ago a city councilmember attempted to remove the requirement for city elected officials to resign when seeking another public office and city voters defeated eliminating the law.

Now a city councilmember is seeking to expand the law by requiring state and federal officials to resign when they seek another elected office. Last year three state representatives ran and won elected city positions in Philadelphia while serving in the Pennsylvania state legislature.

I am not familiar with any other cities that have a law like Philadelphia does. Without a doubt candidates serving in one public office while running for another have an advantage as far as name recognition, raising money and campaigning while receiving a public pay check. Should that advantage be reduced by requiring current office holders to resign when seeking another public office? Or is such action not necessary?

Do We Really Need County Government?

March 27, 2012

As I stated in an earlier post, I recently attended a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara titled “Who Needs County Government and Why?”. The four featured speakers discussed the history of county government in New York State and the services delivered to county residents.

90% of Erie County’s $1.2 billion budget is mandated by the state and federal government, services by law that have to be provided. I understand the importance of these mandated services but I question whether it is necessary to have an entire separate branch of elected government oversee the discretionary expenditure of $120 million.

If you view the minutes of the Erie County Legislature there is not a whole lot going on. There is very little to do regarding the budget as 90% of it is mandated, there are very few local laws passed and their meeting agenda consists of largely receiving and filing coorespondence.

Instead of an Erie County Department of Social Services you could have this department be part of the New York State Department of Social Services. The same could be done with the County Health Dept, Sheriff’s Dept. etc. Parks and Public Works could be taken over by the state or by towns to address county parks and roads in their jurisdictions.

Attorney Jim Magavern stated at the League of Women forum that he supported democracy and having local elected officials make decisions. I support democracy as well but the point is that there is not much for county elected officials to do other than pass symbolic resolutions that seek to generate support and name recognition for re-election to office.

Consider these facts below and express your opinion as to whether we really need county government.

Erie County has a County Executive, County Comptroller, County Sheriff, County Clerk and an 11 member legislature to do the following:

  • The county budget totals $1.2 billion of which only $120 million is controlled by the county. 90% of the county budget is mandated by the state and federal government. (Source County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz)
  • In 2011 the legislature changed $5 million of the county executives proposed budget again not even 1% of the total budget. (source WGRZ.com)
  • While very few laws were passed in 2011, 393 resolutions honoring individuals and community groups were passed! (Source www.erie.gov)
  • Connecticut, Rhode Island & Massachusetts have eliminated county government by transferring programs and services to the state, cities and towns. (Source www.thedailycortlandt.com, 5/31/11)
  • In March of 2010, Robert Bondi after 19 years of serving as Putnam County Executive questioned whether a county executive and county legislature were needed and whether a less expensive form of government can do the job. (Source www.pfeiner.blogspot.com 3/11/10)
  • The wealthy county governments of Rockland, Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester are all experiencing serious budget crisis. Erie County government is operating under a state imposed financial control board.

Recommendations For Improving County Government

March 25, 2012

The League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara sponsored a forum titled Who Needs County Government and Why? The four speakers were:

Dr. Joseph Stefko, Director of Public Finance, Center for Government Research, Rochester, NY

James Magavern, Esq.

Brenda McDuffie, Executive Director, Buffalo Urban League

Kenneth Vetter, Executive Director, Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority

A history of County government was provided along with an overview of the services provided by County government. The most interesting part of the forum for me is when the speakers were asked what recommendations they had for improving County government.

The recommendations proposed were:

  • County government is the only region wide government and should serve as a facilitator of bringing municipalities together.
  • The State should take over the operation of the Medicaid program which is a huge financial burden on counties.
  • A 4 year financial strategic plan should be developed to guide county operations.
  • Annual reporting of County departmental goals and accomplishments should be reported to the public and reviewed by a citizen board.
  • A professional County Manager with the authority to appoint department heads should be implemented.
  • Merging the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie.
  • Implementing a process of land use planning that requires county review of all land and economic development projects so that the interests of the region as a whole are considered as part of such projects.
  • Consolidation of the multiple municipal economic development agencies into one county wide agency.
  • Implement a process to survey community members as to what services they want and to obtain feedback as to how well county services are being provided.
  • Somehow decrease the political partisanship that exists as doing the right thing is not based on political parties.

What do you think about these recommendations? While I am all for improving County government, I question whether we need County government at all, which I will discuss in my next post.

How Does 1 Law Firm Get $4 million Dollars Of City Business?

February 28, 2012

As reported in the Buffalo News, since 2006 when Byron Brown became Mayor of Buffalo records show the Hodgson Russ law firm has earned $4 million in city legal fees, more than the next three highest-paid firms hired by the city combined.

Why does Hodgson Russ get so much of the city’s business? “Experience, resources and results,” Acting Corporation Counsel David Rodriguez said. Rodriguez said the firm’s financial support of the mayor has no influence on his decision-making. Through a spokesman, Mayor Brown declined to comment on his friendship with Hodgson Russ attorney Adam Perry. The Mayor said the city uses Hodgson Russ because the firm has “specialized expertise” to deal with a variety of legal matters.

Daniel Oliverio (Chairman of Hodgson Russ) said many law firms donate money to candidates because they’re trying to “ensure that people we feel are good officeholders can continue their work in the community.” “We don’t have to buy business … there’s no pay-to-play,” Oliverio said. “People hire us because we’re really good at what we do.”

Others suggest law firms donate to politicians to curry favor and boost business.

“They may be an excellent law firm, but you don’t give that kind of money ($24,275 over the past several years) to a candidate unless you think it’s going to benefit you in some way,” responded David Franczyk, now in his 25th year on the Buffalo Common Council.

As Chief of Staff to the Buffalo Common Council for four years and General Counsel to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority for three years, I agree with Councilmember Franczyk that politics and money play a big role in why Hodgson and Russ gets more business than almost all other law firms with government contracts combined.

The proper way to award government business to law firms is to solicit competition by issuing Requests for Proposals and having a panel of government employees select a firm based on price and qualifications. The City of Buffalo issue very few Requests for Proposals for law firms. What usually happens when legal assistance is needed is that a phone call is made directly to Adam Perry and the business is awarded to Hodgson & Russ without any other firms having a fair chance to compete.

The business going to Hodgson & Russ has very little to do with their “specialized expertise” and everything to do with politics, friendships and campaign contributions. A big part of it is also having the trust to discuss political concerns with a lawyer who understands how the game is played, as former Buffalo News reporter Jim Heaney explains in his post on this issue.

To end business as usual where employees and government business is doled out based on patronage and money, a City Manager form of government needs to be implemented in Buffalo and a City Ordinance needs to be passed that bans government contractors from making political contributions. The Buffalo Common Council has provided lip service to studying the idea of implementing a City Manager form of government by passing a Resolution calling for the formation of a commission to explore the idea but a commission has not been formed. Ordinances banning campaign contributions by government contractors have been enacted in other cities. We just need a Councilmember who is willing to challenge the status quo by introducing a Resolution to end campaign contributions to city officials by government contractors. The federal government has banned campaign contributions by government contractors for many years now.

What steps if any do you think should be taken to spread government legal contracts around to other law firms?

Patronage Questions Asked In 1883 Are Still Relevant Today

February 20, 2012

The New York State Civil Service Commission began with the enactment of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. The law was passed after the assassination of President James Garfield, who was shot by a disgruntled seeker of a government job.

The theory behind creating civil service was that competitive examinations and requiring the hiring of those who achieved the highest scores, would prevent politicians from steering jobs to supporters who in many instances were not the most qualified for the positions they filled. Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt sponsored the bill in 1883 that made New York the first state to establish a civil service system. His goal was to base the hiring of government workers on merit, not patronage. In November of 1883, the New York State Civil Service Commission forwarded written questions to officials across New York State “…with reference to the action of political parties and public officers in the matter of patronage”. One hundred and twenty nine years later the questions asked in 1883 are still relevant today as political patronage is alive and well particularly at the local government level.

Below are a few of the questions asked in 1883 by the New York State Civil Service Commission. You can view all of the questions and the answers submitted by several individuals including Assemblymember Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas J. Rogers, City of Buffalo Engineer. The questions and answers begin on page 219.

  • Are appointments made by the … the recommendation of local committees, or public officers, or of prominent representatives of any political party?
  • When two persons of equal apparent merit apply for position, and one has the support of political committees, or prominent politicians, or partisan reasons of any kind to recommend him, and the other has none of these, to which of the applicants … is the preference given?
  • Is the partisan services previously rendered, or the partisan service expected in the future, a controlling reason for making appointments…?
  •  What proportion of appointments are made solely upon the ground of merit and the fitness of the appointee, without expectation of partisan service or the desire to oblige some prominent partisan recommending the appointee?
  • … is it or is it not considered treachery to a political party or organization to appoint persons to subordinate positions not of the same political party or organization as the officer who makes the appointment?
  •  Is it possible for a public officer, deriving his own title or position through the action of a political party, to act independently in making appointments of subordinates, and disregard the recommendations or requests of his political associates or friends, without losing or putting in jeopardy his own political standing and influence?
  • By the present methods, are removals of subordinates made for political reasons, or to provide places for political friends?
  •  …. do persons seeking appointments as subordinates depend mostly upon the power and influence of the political party which they belong, or upon their qualifications and fitness for the position?
  • Is the public service elevated or lower by the present methods of appointment and removal,…?
  • Would the public interest be advanced by prescribing competitive tests or standards of appointments for any subordinate public servants…?

There are certainly pros and cons to the civil service system but without a doubt politicians have found many ways to game the system in an effort to fill positions with political supporters.

And The Most Corrupt Government Award Goes To…?

February 17, 2012

According to a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Chicago is the most corrupt city in the nation and New York State is the most corrupt state.

Since 1976, 2,522 people have been convicted of federal public corruption charges in New York State (70 per year). Since 1976 the Chicago metro area has had 1,531 federal public corruption convictions.

For complete list of states and cities making the top 10 list for federal convictions check out the study, which recommends adopting the following reforms to address corruption in Chicago.

1. Amend the City’s Ethics Ordinance to cover aldermen and their staff;
2. Give the Inspector General access to all city documents including those held
secret by the Corporation Counsel;
3. Ban all gifts to all elected officials and public employees except those from
family members;
4. Bar all lobbying of other governmental bodies by elected officials and city
employees;
5. Prohibit double dipping, patronage and nepotism with real penalties including
firing; and
6. Improve the city’s ethics training and bring it up to at least the State of Illinois
level.

Should Government Contractors Be Banned From Making Political Contributions?

February 6, 2012

Legislation banning government contractors from making political contributions to government officials often called “Pay to Play” exists in eleven states.  Three cities in New Jersey: Newark, Jersey City, and Hoboken also have enacted legislation prohibiting Pay to Play.

Companies and individuals that conduct business with cities and counties often provide the lion’s share of campaign contributions in local races. In many ways contractors making political contributions to elected officials looks and smells bad.  Campaign contributions should have no place in how government conducts its business on behalf of citizens. Allowing contractors seeking business from government promotes the perception that one must “pay to play”.

Common Cause Georgia is calling on the City of Atlanta to enact campaign finance reform aimed to limit the money a vendor can contribute to a political campaign. The proposal specifically caps contributions at $250 every four years, for those who have or seek a city contract. If a corporation exceeds the limit, they will forfeit any contracts they currently have, and/or their ability to compete for contracts the upcoming year. The City of Atlanta has not yet adopted the Common Cause proposal.
In Los Angles, legislation restricts contractors holding or seeking City contracts in excess of $100,000 from making campaign contributions to, or fundraising for, City officials (including the Mayor, the City Attorney, the Controller or a member of the City Council) or candidates to those offices.
In 1998 the New York City Charter Revisions Commission proposed, and the City’s voters passed by referendum, a Charter amendment that directed the Board to prohibit corporate contributions for all candidates participating in the city’s optional public financing election program.  In 2006, after several public hearings and studies, the New York City Campaign Finance Board recommended banning all organizational contributions (including corporations, partnerships, LLCs, PACs, and unions) and regulating contributions by individuals and entities doing business with the City
In 2007, the New York City Council passed Local Law 34, requiring disclosure of, and restricting contributions from, individuals and entities who have business dealings with the City. “Doing business” contributors are strictly limited in their contributions as compared to others: they may donate only approximately one twelfth as much to a candidate as those who are deemed not to be “doing business” with the City. Because the “doing business” contribution limits, unlike the regular limits, are not indexed for inflation, moreover, the disparity between these two sets of limits is only likely to increase over time. Individuals who are not “doing business” with the city can contribute $4,950 to a candidate for mayor and the “doing business” contributor, in contrast, is limited to a contribution of $400.
Interestingly Federal law has long included a prohibition on political contributions by federal government contractors.

Do you think contractors doing business with state and local governments should be banned from making political contributions.

Is 760 Official Commendations By An Elected Official Too Many?

February 1, 2012

The New York Times reports that in two years New York City Comptroller John C. Liu has handed out more than 760 official commendations to individuals and groups. The Times reports that nearly one-quarter of the recipients of the commendations are connected to Liu’s political campaign. Official commendations have been provided to:

“A Liu donor who runs a business importing hair from China to make wigs got one. So did a travel agent who has booked busloads of gamblers on trips to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut and backed Mr. Liu’s campaigns. Then there is the hotel developer in Chinatown, another loyal contributor, who collected three Liu commendations within six months.

The pace with which Mr. Liu is bestowing the awards – more than one a day – and the priority he gives to such ceremonies suggest a political outreach effort as much as an official duty. While other officials might send the commendations along in the mail, he personally delivers most of them, in every borough, posing for photos with recipients and building good will at the events.

At minimum, Mr. Liu has significantly expanded and elevated the commendation process, say recipients and people familiar with the process. His predecessors, William C. Thompson Jr. and Alan G. Hevesi, handed out perhaps a few dozen each year, and almost always to cultural organizations, not people.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg delivered 20 proclamations in 2011, none to people. Members of the City Council, including Speaker Christine C. Quinn, typically issue 20 to 25 annually.”

In the Buffalo area proclamations honoring individuals and organizations take up a lot of elected officials and taxpayer funded staff time. As I reported in another post, when reviewing the Town of Tonawanda Board minutes, I was shocked to learn that over the past 3 years the Town Board has issued 780 proclamations honoring deceased town residents, constituting 25% of the Boards voting action. Staff members have to be responsible for reading newspaper death notices, typing up the proclamations, submitting names for the Board meeting and then mailing the proclamation to the decedent’s family. While I am sure that family members appreciate the proclamations, is this really an appropriate use of government resources?

In 2008 the Erie County Legislature adopted 349 proclamations and enacted five local laws.

In August of 2008 Parade Magazine had an article titled “Why Is Congress Doing So Little?” Apparently Congress that year enacted less legislation than any session within the last decade. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan organization Taxpayers for Common Sense, in 2008 Congress passed just 260 laws and 74 of those were renaming post offices! What Congress did pass however were hundreds of resolutions to congratulate various people and organizations and to recognize important events such as June 30th as National Corvette Day. In a moment of honesty, Rep. John Shimkus (R., Ill) the sponsor of the National Corvette Day resolution stated “It’s probably not the best use of our time, but we have to do something. These resolutions make it look like we’re working.”

Elected officials have important issues to address but from the local level up to the national level, they spend a lot of time on symbolic resolutions and commendations honoring people dead or alive. Do you accept that issuing commendations are an important and necessary part of an elected officials job or do you believe that such activities are simply blatant trolling for votes?

Is Unanimous Government A Good Thing?

January 17, 2012

As a person interested in local government I recently read three years worth of the Town of Tonawanda, NY board minutes (population 78,000). I was shocked to learn how rare it is for a board member to vote “No” on an  item. From 2008-2010 the Tonawanda Town Board voted on 3,179 items and during this three year period there were only 11 instances where any Town Board member voted “No”! While the five member Tonawanda Town Board are all Democrats, it still surprises me there were 3,168 unanimous items and only 11 items with a “No” vote.

The Buffalo News recently pointed out that newly elected Lancaster, NY(population 39,000) Town Supervisor “…did something out of the ordinary: he voted “No” on a resolution.” How unusual is this? Not a single “No” vote was cast in all of 2011. In fact the last previous “No” vote occurred in May 2010.

I don’t believe that government should be about dysfunctional fighting, but years of unanimous “Yes” votes are troubling as well.

Websters Dictionary defines  “unanimous” as: being of one mind, having the agreement and consent of all. I understand that most local government items are pretty routine and mundane but some debate, dissension or disagreement can be a good thing at times.

When elected officials run for office they typically claim that they are going to change things in their community. People who push change encounter resistance, if  there aren’t any “No” votes occurring in your community, perhaps new ideas and change are not being pushed enough?

Is Unanimous government a good thing?