Archive for June, 2012

Current weighted voting system
(click to enlarge)

The process to change the “weighted vote” system of  government that we’ve had in Montgomery County for some time now is finally moving forward . There’s been a series of initial public hearings recently (reported on here and here). The biggest opposition seems to be in regards to the county executive. Originally, the plan was to have eight legislative districts, and the executive office was proposed to have tie-breaker voting power as well as veto power.  After last night’s Charter Commission meeting, the plan was modified to create nine legislative districts in the county, removing the tie-breaking power for the executive, but leaving veto power in.

To me, the argument for the executive position seems fairly straightforward. Currently, county supervisors essentially act as executives for their areas of oversight. However, the stipend they are paid is less than a part-time job, which makes it necessary for most to work day jobs. The executive position would be a full-time position and would provide direction for county operations on a day-to-day basis. The idea of having a legislature that creates laws separate from an executive that carries them out while providing for checks and balances between the two, is the model of government our country was built on. This system is no different then what we currently have for our cities, towns, states and federal government. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would think this system would be problematic for the county, but not for any other situation.

The current system of weighted voting is what flies in the face of what most people understand to be a fair representation. If I had a special interest and wanted to influence the vote on a certain issue, it would be much easier to spend my time lobbying the few highly weighted supervisors, rather than having to lobby them all.

The one area that concerns me is how the districts will be drawn. At first, the plan was for three of the eight districts to be completely within city borders. The revised plan with nine districts is to include areas of surrounding towns in these districts.

I’ve always maintained that the City of Amsterdam has specific needs and interests that are unique to the area.  In certain cases where the city is affected by county government actions, it’s important to me that the city’s interests are well-represented. I would venture to make the same argument for the towns as well. I’m not so sure it’s the best idea to draw districts that encompass areas with divergent interests. I think it may dilute the people’s ability to lobby for certain issues that pertain to where they live.

I take heart however because the county executive, who I assume is going to be elected by a county-wide election, is certainly going to have to pay particular attention to city issues in order to get elected. That’s because the city has roughly 37% of the county’s population and will most likely account for a similar percentage of a popular vote.

I think the proposed changes to the county government system are sensible and hopefully we will be able to vote on enacting them this November.

I believe it’s worth taking a closer look at the Mayor’s proposal to hire someone to head a reactivated Community and Economic Development Department. Taxpayers who are concerned about how their tax bills will increase need to start thinking about more than just cutting expenses, and start thinking about the best ways to invest our tax dollars in new ideas to help our economy get out of the rut our city finds itself in.

I’ll say upfront, I don’t think the CEDD is the best possible plan. I’ve said before that I support the idea of creating a new, dynamic private-public organization based on Flippin’s Big A idea. However, the Mayor has made it clear that she doesn’t support this. So unless Flippin and I are ready to literally beat the streets and rally the masses on this issue, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I believe, however, that if some of the concepts from Big A were incorporated into the new CEDD, that the argument for re-instituting this department would be a lot stronger and have a better chance of actually generating a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The main argument against the CEDD is that the job of economic development can be handled by the existing agencies such as the Amsterdam Industrial Agency, the Urban Renewal Agency, and the Montgomery County Industrial Development Agency. The problem is that while these agencies certainly contribute to our economy, they only specialize in certain areas. I’ve written before that I see AIDA’s success as primarily in the area of manufacturing and distribution. The MCIDA, I propose, is similarly oriented.

I think taxpayers need to ask themselves if they are content with the progress that these current organizations have made. If not, then what do we do about it?

I do not believe that an organization presently exists that is effective at bringing in small businesses, bringing businesses to our downtown, or attracting information technology and nanotechnology businesses. I don’t see an organization that currently exists that has a fully articulated strategy for building on the Global Foundries development or NY State’s Tech Valley Initiative.  I also do not see an organization that is currently capable of creating and executing a marketing plan that ties together all the economic development incentives that are available to businesses in the city, and serves as a single point of contact (as called for in the Comprehensive Plan). Ideally, the CEDD could fulfill these roles.

Although the CEDD was a major point in her platform, and she has mentioned the need on several occasions since then, I don’t think the Mayor has made a strong enough argument for the position. A while back, she posted a draft job description for the CEDD on this blog. While this seems like a good starting point, there are a lot of details and specifics that need to be finalized (it’s a draft after all). If a final version exists, I’ve not seen it publicized.

Vague and generalized objectives will almost certainly result in vague and generalized results, which would be an absolute waste of money. Integral to Flippin’s Big A plan are a set of clearly defined goals, a method to assess progress, and the understanding that future funding is dependent on how well the goals have been met. I believe these concepts need to be integral to the CEDD as well in order to truly succeed and benefit our economy. I would think it would also go a long way in convincing those who may think that this is just another layer of useless bureaucracy.

The CEDD, if properly structured and staffed with a qualified, experienced person, could be our best hope at building a proactive, business friendly environment that competes well in today’s economy. I wish more groundwork had been laid for this idea earlier, as we now find ourselves with an overdue budget and little time left for hammering out details. If the line item is not approved this year, I think it is well worth pursuing for next year’s budget.

While reading opinions here and here on the reported reversal of opinion by the Common Council on the proposed raise for Corporation Counsel Gerry DeCusati, I thought of an easy and fair way to give him that 15K raise without increasing the budget at all. If indeed, DeCusatis was single-handedly responsible for balancing this years budget and no members of the budget committee (which includes the Mayor, Council Members, and Controller) had any valuable input whatsoever in the process, then it seems only reasonable that a total of 15K should be CUT from everyone’s compensation and be given to DeCusatis.

The budget process is one of the most important tasks given to our elected officials. If none of them were able to perform this adequately, then all of their salaries should be reduced, because they have not done the job they were elected and paid by the taxpayers to do.

It does seem like there is more to this story than is being told to the public and I do wish someone would start spilling. It’s hard to believe the common council members are just going to sit back and accept the label of “clueless” and do a 180 turn on their position of giving DeCusatis a hefty raise without any explanation.