Legislature badly in need of reform

Charles Lavine

The experience of having served as chairman of the Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance and as co-chair of the New York State Legislative Ethics Commission over the past two challenged filled years has given me a unique insight into our current ethical crisis.

With each and every instance of corruption, the public’s faith in our governmental institutions decreases and cynicism, the easiest and least courageous response, increases.  

To me, once a child of the Kennedy era, government is nothing less than the organizational extension of community, with public corruption cutting at the very heart of our sense of community itself.

The New York State Assembly is now in the process of selecting a new speaker. There are currently four announced candidates. Each is a friend and each has the capacity to well serve the Assembly and the people of the State of New York.

Each candidate has indicated an interest in some type of reform dealing with ethical conduct.  While it would not be appropriate for the chair of the Ethics Committee and the NYSLEC to advocate for any one of these candidates, it is highly appropriate that I ask each to address the following proposals: 

Reform:  In discussions with many Assemblymembers over the last days, it becomes obvious that the word reform has many meanings and seems, like beauty, to be in the eye of the beholder, ranging from new district office furniture to term limits to the return of member item discretionary funding.  

Some of my colleagues want to adopt reforms immediately.  While this  desire may be a natural reaction to our crisis, there is absolutely no unanimity on the form these reforms should take. 

I believe that any meaningful effort at reform demands embarking on a true partnership with our citizens and can only be produced after the Assembly has listened to the voice of the people.  

Public hearings must be conducted throughout the state to learn the opinions of our fellow New Yorkers, including good government experts.   

New Structure for Assembly Ethics Committee:  

A. The Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance is provided for in the Assembly Rules. It’s jurisdiction, however, is essentially limited to investigating claims of sexual harassment and retaliation and making appropriate recommendations to the Speaker.  

It is unique among all Standing Committees in that it is the only committee that is completely bipartisan and acts only with consensus of its four Republican and four Democratic members.  

The committee’s chair serves as well as co-chair of the bipartisan Legislative Ethics Commission.

This committee is indispensable and its members and I are extraordinarily proud of the demanding work it has performed.  No committee has met more in the past two years.  

It is, however, very misleading for the people of the State of New York to believe, based on the Committee’s name (i.e., “Ethics Committee”), that it has general jurisdiction over all matters of ethics.

I suggest that a new Committee should be provided for under the Assembly Rules known as the “Committee on Civil Conduct and Guidance,” which Committee shall have the present Committee’s jurisdiction over matters of sexual harassment/retaliation and guidance.

B: The Assembly Rules must be amended to provide for the formation of a new Committee to be known as “The Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics,” vested with the original jurisdiction of reviewing and vetting all proposed legislation dealing with ethical issues. This committee should have the power to conduct hearings, issue reports and recommendations and be fully staffed.

Assembly Staff:  The New York State Assembly is truly fortunate to have the services of a first rate central staff of dedicated professionals including, but not limited to, bill drafters, analysts, lawyers, statisticians and economic experts.  

We rely heavily on these talented professionals and could not function without them. They do the real heavy lifting, often going without sleep for days during budget preparation and late session negotiations.  

Our staff is passionately dedicated to the Assembly as an institution.  One need only look at their faces these last days to see how demoralized they are.

I became chairman of the Ethics Committee during the stormiest days of the Vito Lopez crisis, at the very moment our then speaker announced that Assembly staff would no longer be an integral part of the Ethics Committee’s process.  

I know too well the dangerous disadvantage of having to work without being able to count on the professionalism and institutional knowledge of staff.  We cannot allow anything similar to occur again.

I will want to know how the speaker candidates intend to restore and strengthen and confidence of the Assembly staff.  

As an institution that has served the interests of the people of our State since the days of our revolution, the Assembly now needs to repair itself, and our next speaker must be able to provide the leadership necessary to begin this process of healing.

About the author

Charles Lavine

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