August 2, 2012 —
In batting around ideas for editorials, we occasionally come across topics that seem to merit support or condemnation, but are nevertheless not good editorial fodder because they seem just too obvious.
One recent idea that initially seemed to us to fall into this category is Sullivan County District 5 legislator Cindy Gieger’s proposal to adopt a resolution prohibiting the discussion of matters of general public concern, rather than just party business, in caucus, as is the current custom. That would mean that legislative matters of concern to the entire county would have to be discussed in public, and in the presence of all nine legislators, not handled in private caucus talks between the seven Democratic legislators and two Republican legislators respectively.
However, to the extent that it is by no means clear that the other legislators will accept Gieger’s proposal, it looks like matters are not quite that simple. So here are some basic arguments in favor of her proposal.
1. The proposal furthers the goals of democratic governance.
• It is in the interests of a democracy for government to be transparent.
• Transparency requires deliberations over legislative decisions to be held in public.
• The caucuses are private.
• Given the huge seven-two Democratic majority, any matter they settle in private, in caucus, is pretty much a shoo-in for the actual vote, leaving little to discuss in the full session.
• Therefore, most of the deliberations happen in private.
• The current system is therefore not transparent, and not in the interests of democracy.
• 2. The current system is unfair to certain Sullivan County citizens.
• In a fair system of government, all citizens should have equal representation in the deliberations of the legislature.
• In a representative rather than direct democracy, that means their representatives should have equal representation in the deliberations of the legislature.
• Districts 3 and 9, including Rockland and parts of the towns of Liberty and Thompson, are represented by minority legislators Alan Sorensen and Kitty Vetter.
• Vetter and Sorensen, as Republicans, are not included in the majority Democratic caucus deliberations.
• Therefore, the current system does not fairly and equally represent the citizens of Sullivan County.
3. It is in the long-term self interest of the Democrats to adopt Gieger’s proposal.
• It is in the long-term interest of the Democrats to make sure that they always have a fair place at the legislative table.
• Power inevitably shifts over time.
• If the system isn’t changed, then the next time the Democrats find themselves in a minority, they will be largely locked out of the decision making process.
• To ensure their long-term access to power, the Democrats should amend the current system.
The arguments we have heard against the proposal, meanwhile, do not persuade us. Legislative chair and District 1 representative Scott Samuelson reportedly pointed out that the government has already taken a number of steps toward transparency. Good. But is that a reason not to take another one? Isn’t it in fact a persuasive reason to take as many as you can?
District 4 legislator Jonathan Rouis pointed out that, after all, matters are ultimately voted on by all nine legislators. Well, yes. But for democracy to be functioning at its best, you don’t just need everyone voting, you need everybody voting to be well informed and to have had input into the policy being voted on. It’s hard to see how having two people voting in the dark, with restricted input into the resolution being voted on, is going to make things better.
Gieger has said that whether her proposal prevails or not will depend on public pressure. We stand behind it, and would like to invite those members of the public who think it’s a good idea to let their legislators know.