Op-ed seeks to “connect the dots in the County Legislature”

Connecting the dots in the Legislature; A cross-section of sluggishness in county politics

Op-ed by Michael Riconda

I’ve seen some strong words and emotions in the County Legislature, but rarely have I seen a display quite like the past few weeks, when it seemed at times like the body might tear itself apart with its own inflated frustrations.

During that time, the County Legislature debated and struck down three bills before resurrecting them for successful passage. One of the bills was relatively uncontroversial, but was still built up into a political football.

These types of conflicts are common. In most cases there was no firm partisan coalition suggesting party politics as the culprit, but a core group of legislators did emerge from the debates as a force that slowed-and even appeared at times to obstruct-progress.

The first bill, a memorializing resolution in support of the East Ramapo Oversight proposal currently before state lawmakers, was predictably controversial. The bill failed in the six-person Multi-Services Committee when it failed to gather support from Legislators Aron Wieder, Phillip Soskin and Ilan Schoenberger, who represent areas served by the school district.

This was neither surprising nor devious; Legislators are elected to serve their respective districts and the East Ramapo oversight bill has seen its strongest opposition in the religious community that backs the three legislators. Nonetheless, the failure of the resolution raised enough ire among oversight supporters to prompt its re-introduction and passage in the full legislature, which overwhelmingly supports oversight.

A second memorializing resolution was also crafted to back County Executive Ed Day’s illegal housing initiative, a program he had been working on with the County Health Department since before his election, which also had broad support among legislators. Like East Ramapo, this bill was faced with skepticism from East Ramapo legislators and failed to escape committee before it was re-introduced and passed unanimously.

In a third instance, the appointment of Legislator Richard Diaz stalled in Multi-Services until-you guessed it-the resolution was re-introduced and passed by the broader legislature. This time, legislative Republicans lent a hand in the blockage, but once again, Schoenberger, Soskin and Wieder proved problematic for even their fellow Democrats.

A political maneuver of Republicans against Democrats is not atypical, even in local politics where collaboration is often much easier than in the cutthroat worlds of Albany and Capitol Hill. Why then do we keep seeing sluggish movement from Democrats on matters most legislators-including their party allies-see as uncontroversial?

In the case of Diaz, Republicans largely attributed their disapproval to their desire for a runoff election and further consideration of other candidates. The general sentiment among Diaz’s supporters was that Republicans wanted to keep the Democrats from gaining a firmer hold on the body. However, no clear answer was given by Democratic legislators, who only offered vague allusions to unresolved issues in the legislature.

Wieder and Schoenberger were not present for the vote, which required a majority affirmative approval. In the case of Soskin, who voted against Diaz in committee and then later changed his vote when it went through the full legislature, he said the vote was stalled by “a more pressing item on the table.” It might be worth noting that Diaz’s initial approval vote was held a week before the East Ramapo re-vote.

I cannot offer any firm conclusions on the matter, but after his initial rejection Diaz seemed resolute in his belief that his longstanding advocacy on behalf of public school children, which included a visit to Albany with activists who lobbied for East Ramapo oversight, was a “motivating factor” in his rejection.

The position of the three legislators on that matter is not difficult to determine, particularly given the uncharacteristically strong rhetoric offered as of late. Soskin has compared opposition to oversight to the Boston Tea Party, while Schoenberger had stated he believed such a move would be unconstitutional to the point of being authoritarian.

References to broad themes of American heritage and resistance to tyranny in political argument are delicate things which should be used with discretion, otherwise they might be diluted and even insulted. On the subject of a school board monitor it seems out-of-context and downright bizarre to conjure up images of America’s founding or its larger fights against tyranny.

The rhetoric hardly ended at the oversight bill. On the contrary, it seemed to intensify. While Schoenberger and Soskin couched their wariness of the Diaz appointment in vague procedural language, they grew more aggressive on the matter of the housing initiative, betraying an unusual fervor against a proposal even they admitted they supported. With that aggression came perhaps the strangest moments of the past few weeks.

Schoenberger and Soskin, to their credit, both explicitly stated they supported the housing initiative in spite of legal concerns about the Sanitation Department’s role in enforcement and the liability of county officers. Consequently, they called for more information from the County Attorney-information they argued Day did not provide-but voted for the resolution even without the confirmation.

Though Health Department Commissioner Patricia Schnabel Ruppert was present at Multi-Services to answer questions and assured the Legislature that no legally-ambiguous changes to the County’s Sanitary Code would be pursued, neither legislator seemed satisfied with anything but an official document directly provided by Day. At that moment, the matter rolled itself into a larger feud and tensions rose to a fever pitch.

Discussing the resolution, Soskin unleashed a barrage of veiled accusations against Day and even attendant fire personnel, who eventually walked out in frustration after Soskin refused to call a vote on the resolution, even though it was plainly slated on the agenda. Before then, however, Soskin lambasted Day for executive overreach, suggested claims about housing dangers were “hearsay,” and claimed the initiative might be used to wrongly punish or even blackmail innocent property-owners.

Even during the full legislature when he said he had all the information he needed and agreed to vote for the resolution, he justified his actions in Multi-Services by arguing the memorializing resolution was not, in fact, memorializing. Given the housing initiative is already underway and that the proposal added nothing by itself, the argument once again proved puzzling and awkward.

Schoenberger and other Democratic legislators also took the opportunity to chastise Day at the legislative meeting. Given recent conflicts over the county budget and smaller jabs thrown between the executive and legislative branches on other matters, this was also to be expected. What was highly unexpected, however, was the re-introduction of the bill with two clauses specifically blaming Day for failing to provide the necessary legal information for a decision. While the first clause merely described attempts to obtain that information, the second was a bold statement that chastised Day for a “refusal to work cooperatively with the legislative branch.”

The clauses were predictably controversial and were struck down, but their very inclusion was a testament to the sorry state of the body in the past few weeks. In spite of calls for cooperation and collaboration, legislators such as Schoenberger and Soskin (not to mention other Democrats such as Jay Hood and Toney Earl) argued a political bicker was fit to be memorialized as an insert into a fundamentally apolitical resolution. As if the matter had not already become a political football, now the legislature was faced with the complicated task of trimming inflammatory language at the last minute to pass a bill meant to support of firefighters put in danger by illegal building practice.

Oddly enough, Schoenberger said he hoped to “build a consensus” with his own support for the bill. If “building a consensus” means alienating the county executive’s supporters in the legislature in an effort to present Day with a bill which chastises his own behavior, then I’m not sure he understands the words coming out of his own mouth. Either that or he never wanted a consensus in the first place.

Consensus is an odd thing on the legislature. On one hand, all the legislators are demonstrably capable of setting aside small squabbles to unite on matters of no small importance. On the other hand, even those compromises seem contingent upon repeated arguments which often approach a tone of panic or immaturity.

All criticisms aside, the County Legislature is certainly not defined by juvenile behavior; on the contrary, most are intelligent and experienced civil servants who genuinely care for the county and seek to do good. When they act otherwise, it leaves open all sorts of questions about their true motives, who they intend to serve, and whether they value progress over partisanship.

In the month of May, at least, a few seemed to have favored the latter.

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