Gotham Gazette

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Assembly Reform Group Will Miss Own Deadline

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(photo via the governor's office on flickr)

The Assembly working group on operations, participation, and transparency is set to miss its self-imposed December deadline to issue recommendations on how to make the chamber more accommodating to the public and rank-and-file members.

Assemblymember Gary Pretlow, the group's co-chair, told Gotham Gazette: "We wanted to get it out before the end of December but that's not gonna happen."

The 12-member group was put together by newly-minted Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in April as a concession to pressure from reform-minded members and good government groups. The group has gotten off to a slow start and it is unclear how promising the endeavor will be.

In August Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that he and fellow co-chair Brian Kavanagh had only solicited ideas from members via email and not had much response. Heastie defended the group's pace that month.

"The idea was for them to meet and have conversations and come back to us with recommendations in the next session. So I've left that to the 12 members of the committee...they have time," Heastie was quoted by State of Politics. However, by Pretlow's description, only two of the members have had any real say so far.

Pretlow says things have picked up for at least himself and Kavanagh, if not the rest of the working group.

"Assemblyman Kavanagh and I have been wading through 15 pages of recommendations. We've been meeting about every week. We didn't want to bring everyone to Albany every week because then you guys would say we were milking per diems. So it's damned if you do, damned if you don't," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette.

Pretlow said he hopes to present the 12 other members of the group with recommendations within the next two weeks and then share what they agree on with the full Assembly when it returns to session January 6.

Proposals the group could be considering include ones that would more equally distribute resources amongst members, allow for a more open committee process, mandate use of the internet to better publicize important hearings, and allowing rank-and-file members to more easily advance their bills.

The group has faced criticism for not including Assembly Republicans who have long complained of having their voices silenced in legislative committees and bills killed before they reach a vote.

Pretlow said that he and Kavanagh have met with some groups with outside interest in reforms, "We met with the so-called good government groups to take their suggestions and we looked for input from the public but we haven't got any," Pretlow said.

When asked how the group solicited public input, Pretlow said he thought perhaps there was "something on the internet," and encouraged Gotham Gazette to contact Kavanagh for specifics. Kavanagh's office did not return request for comment.

"We've gots lots of recommendations from what's been in the press," said Pretlow. "It's not like this is a secret group."

Representatives of good government groups had slightly varying takes on their meeting with the working group but agreed it wasn't particularly eventful.

Blair Horner, of The New York Public Interest Research Group, said it was hard to read the pair either way and that he felt they were on a "fact-finding mission."

"It was hard to read the tea leaves, they played it close to vest and they were non-committal," said Horner who noted that the working group can't make promises as the Democratic conference will have to approve the recommendations.

Other attendees felt the pair outright rejected many of their proposals without even the slightest consideration and that it seemed they were more concerned with perception and political power than moving on major reform. "We essentially read a list of proposals to these guys and they told us why they can't, or won't, do them," said one attendee.

Some reformers were hoping the group would have recommendations that would have been debated in public hearings, and agreed on in time to pass during their first day in session. It is more likely the conference will discuss the recommendations for the first time as a body on that day.

"The only thing I have to say is that now is clearly the time for Heastie and the Assembly Democrats to make a clean break with a very corrupt and undemocratic past," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, when told about the delay. "It's on the Assembly Democrats to change the culture and the rules that have been a breeding ground for scandal after scandal. We hope Speaker Heastie is up to the challenge."

Heastie, who replaced his predecessor, Sheldon Silver, when Silver was indicted (he has since been convicted on federal corruption charges), has received praise from a number of his younger members for listening to a wider range of legislators than Silver and for empowering rank-and-file members.

"Since becoming Speaker, I have made a special effort to create issue specific workgroups and a new subcommittee structure that promotes member participation while exploring new ideas to move New York forward," said Heastie in a statement announcing the creation of the working group. "Members have a lot of great ideas, and the creation of this new workgroup is an opportunity for us to build on the strong processes already in place that promote transparency and accountability."

However, there is growing concern among reformers in and out of the Assembly that Heastie is essentially punishing Kavanagh for pushing for more reforms, which could theoretically weaken Heastie as leader, by sticking him with a group that is meant to be a dog and pony show. Pretlow told Gotham Gazette in August that he wanted to make sure the group didn't do anything to infringe on Heastie's "power."

"This has got to be torture for the guy," said a fellow Democrat of Kavanagh, "He actually wants change and Carl is making him pay for it."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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