If something is not broke you should not try to fix it. A majority of legislators in Ulster County have come up with a variation. They are determined to break something that is not broken.
Their target is the county Board of Ethics, an original feature of the county charter approved by voters in 2006 after years of study. At the time and ever since, the structure and performance of the board has provided a model of intelligent democracy.
The county executive has the sole power to nominate members who serve an unlimited term. By law, no more than two can belong to the same political party. Legislators get to confirm or reject nominations, the kind of arrangement that illustrates power sharing at it best, something known as checks and balances. Neither county executive nor Legislature has the ultimate power, so they have to work together and since 2006 they have.
If the majority of legislators get their way, that will no longer be true. Gone would be the limitation on party membership, putting the board in jeopardy every time a different majority wins an election. Gone would be the balance, replaced with a two-person limit on executive nominations while legislative leaders get one slot apiece.
Ulster would not be the first to do this should the law survive. It would be following in the corrupt footsteps of another county, Suffolk, where the local ethics commission is under investigation by a grand jury.
So why are legislators doing this? They are tired of seeing Ulster County Executive Mike Hein get credit for many of the innovations in Ulster, for example the environmental initiatives that earned feature treatment in National Geographic or the increase in television and film work following an expansion of state tax credits.
They need to change the composition of the Board of Ethics, they say, because people are scared of Hein’s power. “To have an ethics board appointed by the executive doesn’t make much sense to me,” Democratic Legislator Joe Maloney of Saugerties said. “In Ulster County, we have a legislative body that, as a whole, is downright scared.”
He tried to claim that some unnamed people had told him they were afraid to go to the board because Hein controls who gets on it. It appears he neglected to comfort them with the news that legislators have to approve all appointments. He provided no proof and none came up at the public hearing on the law. Those who are opposed, however, have had a lot to say.
Bea Havranek, the former county attorney who helped write the charter, said that the new structure would have a “chilling effect.”
Cynthia Bell, president of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, pointed out that the vulnerability to a simple majority vote means “The Legislature would effectively have full control over the Board of Ethics, eliminating the checks and balances.”
And the chairman of the board, Derek Spada, said that “Any change to the appointment process may open the door to corruption.”
Hein needs to veto this misguided and transparent power grab, giving legislators a chance to think things over before they do real damage.