Sullivan County Democrat
Callicoon, New York
March 1, 2013 Issue
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Could caucuses
be opened up?

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — Open government – or perhaps more accurately, open caucusing – proved a dominating discussion at Thursdays’ variety of Legislature meetings.
“I ran on open government,” said Legislator Cindy Gieger, who first brought up the topic Thursday in her Ag and Sustainability Committee.
Specifically, Gieger wants to open up the currently private caucusing both the Democratic and Republican legislators utilize when they don’t want to discuss a matter in open, public session.
New York State law actually permits such, though technically only for discussing political strategy.
Executive sessions – covering sensitive topics from lawsuits to public safety – are also permitted, but Gieger indicated some of her colleagues in the powerful Democratic majority are discussing far more than they should behind closed doors.
And that sometimes leaves the two Republicans – Kitty Vetter and Alan Sorensen – out of the loop.
“What goes on in one meeting is not necessarily fully involved or acknowledged by another group,” said Vetter, referring to situations when Democrats relay information from their caucus to the Republicans.
“Just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do,” added Sorensen. “... To discuss [in caucus] matters beyond politics I think is inappropriate.”
Members of the attending public agreed.
“I fully believe the caucus system is being abused,” assessed Grahamsville’s Ken Walter, noting the apparency of prior closed-door discussion on such topics as the proposed Law Enforcement Commission and the Sullivan County Visitors Association’s contract. “It’s like getting blindsided out here as the public…and it’s shooting yourself in the foot.
“Your credibility,” he said, “is your openness to the public.”
“The best way for ideas to grow is to have an open flow of information,” added Jill Wiener of Callicoon Center.
“The fact that the issue was raised suggests there’s a problem,” observed Rock Hill resident Dave Colavito.
Some legislators, however, argued they regularly fulfill their campaign promises of open, transparent government.
“If you’ve been to our recent meetings, you’ll see there is a lot of open government going on,” remarked Legislature Chair Scott Samuelson.
“I do think we have an extremely open and inviting process,” said Samuelson’s predecessor as chair, Jonathan Rouis.
Nevertheless, Gieger has already drafted a resolution proposing to open up caucuses to the public and all nine legislators in order to facilitate the free flow of information.
She didn’t introduce it last week but indicated she may do so in August.
“I’m still seeking legal advice and advisory opinions,” she explained.
Police Commission ‘morphing’
No action was taken Thursday on the proposed Law Enforcement Commission, which would ostensibly look for efficiencies in local police services.
“It’s morphing all the time,” Samuelson told the Democrat yesterday, adding that legislative leaders are trying to come up with something that will please everyone, including Sheriff Michael Schiff, who has expressed concern about the process.
Samuelson was not sure if action might be taken in August or later.
Legislature ‘United’
After some convincing from MoveOnSullivanNY members, Legislator Alan Sorensen joined his colleagues in unanimously approving a resolution opposing the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision of 2010, which granted “personhood” to corporations.
The resolution basically supports amending the Constitution to ensure that corporations are not treated as people – specifically that their political donations cannot be considered protected free speech in the way such is granted to individual Americans.
“There is clearly a need for campaign finance reform,” Sorensen acknowledged after initially voting against the resolution in committee out of concerns it might harm freedom of the press.
“It’s the money – it’s not the speech,” explained Dave Colavito of Rock Hill, who supported the resolution.
“I do believe too much power is given to the people who have the money to do things,” added Legislator Kitty Vetter, Sorensen’s fellow Republican.
Kathie Aberman of Liberty, one of MoveOnSullivanNY’s organizers, thanked the Legislature for the vote of affirmation on a topic her group has advocated for months.
“I know it may seem symbolic, but it really is going to add up,” she said. “So far, 300 municipalities, five states and 26 attorneys general are in support of this.”

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