Friday, March 16, 2007

Out of Comptrol

Aspects of the quarrel in Albany last month over selecting a new State Comptroller deserve to be remembered. Particularly memorable for GreeneLanders is the contribution made by a local representative to the annals of political sophistry.

The need to pick a new Comptroller arose from the fact that the incumbent, Alan Hevesi, having just been re-elected, was forced to resign over misuse of State funds. The choice of successor was legally/constitutionally the prerogative of the State’s legislators—Assembly members and Senators together. By a substantial majority (156 to 56) the legislators chose one of their members, Thomas DiNapoli, over the other nominee, Martha Stark. They did so in the wake of a procedural bargain that had been struck by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate President Joseph Bruno. The agreement called for getting a blue-ribbon panel of former Comptrollers to find qualified candidates whose names would be submitted for choice by the legislators. The panelists produced three names. Mr Silver and Mr Bruno were not satisfied. Instead, they jointly endorsed another candidate, Assemblyman DiNapoli. To that choice, and to the moves that led to its availability, Governor reacted angrily. Mr DiNapoli was “thoroughly and totally unqualified,” he said, and the people who brought his name forward showed “stunning lack of integrity.” The latter sentiment was echoed loudly by one freshman Assemblyman, Greg Ball (Putnam County Republican), who accused his colleagues of “violation of public trust.” His interpretation evoked boos, hisses, catcalls, and calls for resignation, which the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, declined to quell.

Voting by the legislators showed curious lines of connection and cleavage. When the Comptroller question was put to a vote, most of the Assembly’s Democrats (including Tim Gordon, who represents the northern part of GreeneLand) spurned their gubernatorial co-partisan and voted for Mr Napoli, whereas all of the Senate’s Democrats voted for Stark. Most of the Senate’s Republicans supported DiNapoli, a Democrat, while the Assembly’s Republicans were divided: 17 for DiNapoli, 25 (including their Leader as well as freshman Peter Lopez, who represents other parts of Greene County) for Stark.

The Comptroller issue occupied, and preoccupied, the State legislature for more than a day. It was the main piece of business and main story in the news media. Yet on the official web sites of the State Assembly and Senate—the regular records of decisions and deliberations--it received no attention at all. Mr Silver and Mr Bruno evidently have decided to treat it as a non-event. So, evidently, have Mr Gordon and Mr Lopez; they did not issue statements about the case, or post statements on their web sites.

In contrast to his silent colleagues, Sen. Jim Seward, who represents GreeneLand and other localities, posted a statement on his web site, and distributed one to district newspapers. For connoisseurs of political rhetoric, that essay deserves close attention. Here is the text of what appeared in The Daily Mail (2/7):

The media have included stories in the last week about the choice of a new state controller to fill the position vacated by Alan Hevesi, who resigned after pleading guilty to theft.

The state constitution specifies that the state legislature will select a comptroller when a vacancy occurs. I joined a panel of other legislators as a member of the Senate Finance Committee to interview various candidates. The senate majority leader, assembly speaker and governor--the three men in a room-- had agreed that the three former comptrollers would recommend candidates, and subsequent to their recommendation of three candidates, there was disagreement over whom that list would include.

Those arguing that the agreement to select from a list constitutes a reform forgot one thing: that agreement was developed by "three men in a room," not rank and file legislators. Choosing from a predetermined list was the ultimate backroom deal. When the legislature as a whole became involved, 212 legislators rejected the approach of three men and opted to order from the whole menu—not just the appetizers.

Included on the screening panel were three former state comptrollers -- two of whom had service as state legislators before becoming comptroller and one of whom was a former elected county executive. A state legislator serving as comptroller is more the norm than not in recent history. Hevesi, who just resigned, was a former state assemblyman. In fact, the voters of the state returned him to office in November. In 2002, he faced a former assemblyman, John Faso, who garnered about 48 percent of the vote that year in losing to Hevesi. Clearly, the voters have not rejected the concept of having a former legislator in the comptroller's chair.

Our current process produced former comptroller H. Carl McCall, who by many financial observers has been adjudged an effective comptroller, and for now, we have the process we have. The current process may be flawed in placing so significant a position as our state's chief financial officer -- and the attorney general in the case of vacancy in that office -- in the hands of 212 legislators. Maybe it is time to assess how we can develop an improved process for choosing a comptroller and attorney general.

Should we have a line of succession, like we do in the governor's office, or put the decision back into the hands of the voters? I trust the voters. That's why I have signed onto legislation that would change the process for filling vacancies in the comptroller's and attorney general's offices by putting the vacancy back on the ballot for a decision by the people of the state, not elected legislators, in a special election. The alternative, and one certainly worth looking at, is filling the position by appointment until the next election. That would give the voters a chance to fill the position and would remove the added expense of a special election. Some have criticized the legislature for not choosing from the three "finalists" proposed by the panel of three former state comptrollers. I am not bound as a legislator by, nor is there some special virtue in, selecting from a list developed by three former comptrollers and endorsed only by the governor. I cast my own vote, whether the legislative leaders have agreed on a list or not. One of the jobs of the comptroller is to audit state agencies, which are run by the governor, and in my view it is not a good idea to have a comptroller handpicked by one man whose agencies and actions the comptroller is called upon to audit, evaluate and investigate. New York state legislators have been good enough to be congressmen, U.S. senators, and even presidents. I certainly think one can -- again -- function as comptroller.

That appraisal of events is noteworthy on several counts.

(1) COP OUT. Conspicuous in the foregoing discourse is an omission. While addressing his and his fellow legislators’ choice of a new Comptroller, Senator Seward neglects to mention how he voted. (This marks a contrast to what he wrote on his web site, namely, “I voted for Assemblyman DiNapoli.”).

(2) ELISION. Having finessed the question of how he voted, Senator Seward buys an excuse of sorts for skipping the business defending his choice. He does not seem to need to argue that his candidate was the most qualified one, or that, even though his candidate was not the best qualified, he was still, on balance, the optimal choice. And yet Senator Seward is defending an action by “the legislature” that “some” (an elusive crowd) “have criticized.”

(3) DANGLING COMPARISON. Senator Seward does address the matter of qualifications, but only in a question-begging manner. He recalls that legislators have been Comptrollers before, and he estimates that since State legislators “have been good enough to be congressmen, U.S. senators, and even presidents,” then a State legislator surely “can…function as comptroller.” Those words serve indirectly to acknowledge that the majority of legislators’ chose one of their own. They say nothing about the qualifications of Assemblyman DiNapoli.

(4) ARBITRARY DISMISSAL. Senator Seward acknowledges that “Some have criticized the legislature for not choosing from the three ‘finalists’ proposed by the panel of three former state comptrollers.” He makes the valid but idle point that he was not obligated to heed the panelists’ recommendation. He also contends that there is no “special virtue in selecting from a list developed by three former comptrollers and endorsed only by the governor.” But surely there IS special virtue in that procedure. It is a likely antidote to cronyism and narrow partisanship. At the very least, such candidates deserve to be accorded a presumption of suitability.

(5) RED HERRING. Most of Senator Seward’s essay deals with procedures for choosing Comptrollers when the office is vacant between elections. It defends and it befogs what was done in this case. Senator Seward avers that since “One of the jobs of the comptroller is to audit state agencies, which are run by the governor,” then “it is not a good idea to have a comptroller handpicked by one man whose agencies and actions the comptroller is called upon to audit, evaluate and investigate.” Invited here is the inference that what happened in this case, or what could have happened, was “a comptroller handpicked” by the governor. Not true. The senator’s own text establishes that the new Comptroller was, and legally had to be, chosen by the legislators. Mr Seward encourages belief that the legislators, or a majority of them, showed a streak of commendable independence, refusing to be bound by the terms of a “backroom deal” struck by “three men.” In point of fact, he and a majority of fellow legislators chose to heed the cues of two men, who decided to disregard the terms of the deal they had struck with the third party. That deal consisted of agreeing to consult professional experts on Comptroller work, and to accept their nominations of candidates for selection by the legislators. If the legislators had adopted the candidate endorsed by the Governor, they would not have been accepting a handpicked choice. They would have been accepting the advice of independent advisers who had been selected by mutual agreement between three leaders. Mr Bruno and Mr Silver welshed. Mr Seward and a majority of State legislators supported them.


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