Barack Obama and Mike Hein have some things in common. Both came in as reformers. Obama was going to fix the economy; Hein went about inventing a new form of government — the Ulster County executive branch. Hein had the good fortune to ride Obama’s coattails to victory in 2008, though with a 10,000-vote plurality he probably didn’t need them.
Five years down the road, the county executive probably has more to brag about than the president, and he did so at his sixth annual State of the County address last week, albeit with some self-serving tweaks of history.
I wouldn’t call it an invitation-only crowd at UCCC’s Vanderlyn Hall, though any department head who didn’t attend without a rock-solid alibi might have joined Ulster’s long list of the unemployed the next morning. It appears announcement of the executive’s annual speech went public only four days before its Tuesday delivery at the college. Nonetheless, more than 200 people showed up — some, given the frequent outbursts of applause for even implausible applause lines, apparently close relatives of trained seals.
The press was cordoned off behind a heavy-link chain at the rear of the room, about as far from the podium as physically possible. Even from way back there, the dazzling show put on by the chief executive was pretty impressive. This is a prime-time player in his prime, prepared, confident, and practiced by frequent delivery.
So too the president. But the president, unlike the executive, has opposition parties to contend with, nosy journalists, critics on every corner.
Our county executive, with the possible exception of the occasional rogue assemblyman and curmudgeonly political columnist, pretty much defines himself and his administration. About the worst the Republican opposition could say about him is they hope he continues to hold property tax increases around zero.
I found the cumulative effect of five years of ribbon-cutting and self-promotion wrapped around well-designed power points and slides and a smooth delivery impressive. This was one helluva campaign speech.
Like Obama finally casting off the chains of George Bush, Hein now seems willing to allow the sins of the old legislature, which appointed him county administrator, to fade into the past. And while it’s neither fair nor reasonable to compare the outdated legislative form of government (circa 1967-2008) with its modern executive successor, the fact is that Mike Hein has made the trains run on time.
Some deplore his methods. His government is cloistered and secretive, and combative, too, his ludicrous claims of transparency notwithstanding. Slapping a bunch of public documents on the county’s website does not equate to day-to-day access. As a rule, he refuses to communicate with people who disagree with him. Like me. But perhaps I protest too often.
But a prelude
As with the president’s State of the Union, Hein’s was mostly small-ball. Keeping kids away from tobacco and protecting them from bullies drew predictable applause, as would calls to motherhood and apple pie.
He promised to cooperate with the legislature, as he does every year, but experience suggests that cooperation only comes when the legislature agrees to advance his programs. Hein prefers his version of the facts, as witnessed by his giving the legislature credit for initiating the sale of the county infirmary at Golden Hill in Kingston. The executive in fact had repeatedly pilloried “the do-nothing Republican legislature” for failure to take action in what he called a hemorrhaging facility in drastic need of major capital updates. It was the executive who acted first. The legislature, kicking and screaming, followed.
Even among loyalists, the assertion that “we saved Golden Hill” seemed analogous to that Marine taking a Zippo lighter to a Vietnamese village. Eschewing the management reforms the infirmary required, the county sold it. If “saving” is the operative word, credit the people who bought it. That transaction, completed last June except for a few million owed by federal and state agencies, netted the county $11.5 million, with almost a third of the workforce coming off the books.
Hein, in the words of one amused businessman, “exercised admirable restraint” in attacking arch-foe Kevin Cahill only four times. The year is young.
In any event, the 2014 State of the County message is but a prelude to the all-important election year 2015 message. Those who found this one pretty good — and it was — can hardly wait for the next edition.
Former Ulster County legislature chairman Dan Alfonso used to say that the real work of legislatures was done in committee. Legislative committees, specifically assigned to various areas, do the research, with assistance from the executive branch, debate often-conflicting points of view at public sessions, and typically offer consensus recommendations to the full body. Committees tended to respect the prerogative of other committees, which is to say what committees recommend full legislatures usually approve.
The rancor developing over legislature coalition chairman John Parete’s selection of committee chairs and members could seriously impede that collegial process unless, Parete says, adult behavior rises above petty petulance.
Parete presides (if that’s the right word) over a curious combination of 10 united minority Republicans and three rogue (in the eyes of the Democratic majority) Democrats to form a 13-member majority. Rather than taking their whupping like adults, I think, the losers have been fighting a rearguard action that will ultimately divide and weaken the legislature itself.
Case in point.
Last week, a routine appointment to the incidental county jury board was on the table. The only apparent duty of the three-member jury board is to periodically appoint the commissioner of jurors. Members by statute include the county judge, senior resident state Supreme Court judge and legislature chairman. The last two chairmen, Terry Bernardo and Parete, have delegated that authority to a legislator nominated by the chairman and approved by the legislature
Dave Donaldson, Parete’s 13th vote for chairman, was nominated for the post. Pete Loughran, who had once expressed interest in the job of commissioner, put his name forward, but he withdrew in the face of the “Parete majority.” “I don’t have the votes,” he said at the Democratic caucus preceding the floor vote.
He had a few votes. Legislators Manna Jo Greene, Jeanette Provenzano, Hector Rodriguez (whom Parete bested for chairman), Ken Wishnick and Loughran voted against Donaldson at session. The vote, of course was purely symbolic: Donaldson’s nomination sailed though by a 17-5 margin.