The three parties represented in the Orange County Legislature are scheduled to caucus Wednesday before a very important meeting, the one to revise the proposed budget for the coming year.
At these caucuses, members discuss upcoming matters, and when the budget is on the agenda, they are sure to talk about which categories should get more and which less.
Democrats will hold a caucus in public, as will the Independence Party. If Republicans follow their tradition, they will meet in secret. Because they have a commanding majority in the Legislature, the decisions they make behind closed doors will be the ones that make it into the final budget, determining what gets funded, what does not and how much you will pay in taxes.
Secret government is legal in New York because decades ago, when state legislators revised laws to open up government, making meetings and documents accessible to the public, they carved out exceptions for themselves and for other governmental bodies. While it is illegal for legislators to meet in private and discuss public business, it is not illegal for members of a political party to meet in private and do the same. And if the members of that party happen to hold a majority and make secret decisions that the public knows about only when they are not-so-surprisingly approved by a majority vote, there is nothing the public can do.
This absurd and anti-democratic system was tested in court and found to be legal. But there is something that parties can do if they want. They can waive their right to secrecy, as the Democrats and Independents do in Goshen, and let us see how they are making decisions.
Republicans have refused to do that.
But they will be one Republican short come Wednesday, because Mike Anagnostakis, a Town of Newburgh Republican, has decided that he will caucus with Michael Amo, long the lone member of the Independence Party, instead, making it now a caucus of two.
As he explained, “I’ve never fit into a process that operates behind closed doors. I’ve always been an independent-minded Republican — doing what’s best for the taxpayers and not the political insiders — and that’s what I will continue to be.”
Those who follow his career know that he has consistently fought with those Republican leaders who like to keep things among themselves. He was most effective in his years-long fight to keep the county from selling the Valley View nursing home. With his background in finance and his tendency to question the kinds of orders that Republican leaders expect to be followed faithfully, he was able to shine a light on the bad decisions and odd management that had made Valley View vulnerable.
Now, as he maintained it would all along, it is providing the fine service it always has at virtually no cost to government, something that Republican leaders and legislators either could not see or did not want to.
Without Anagnostakis in the room, that next Republican caucus is bound to be quiet and obedient as the orders are handed out and followed. Too bad we can’t watch.