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Outside Looking In

Silly season made sillier by silly system

First published: September 14, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: September 12, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Last week’s state and local primary is over. And with the exception of waiting to find out if Russell J. Finley will manage to stay on the ballot’s Conservative Party line for the 116th Assembly District, the slates are set for November.

Watching the primary results roll in Tuesday, it struck me just how far out of whack the state’s electoral system has gotten. My primary example from Tuesday: Eugene Langone faced Kathy Quencer in the Republican Party election for Family Court judge. And they also faced off in the Conservative Party, the Independence Party and the Green Party.

Imagine — registered Republicans vying for a Green Party line in the general election! Ralph Nader would be rolling over in his grave, were he dead.

This convoluted system has developed over the years in part because the state Legislature has at least given lip service to broadening the ballot opportunities to parties with small followings. If it were constituted in a better fashion, the intent is not wrong; why should the Republicans and Democrats be the only parties to nominate candidates? Third-party candidates (notice how this briefly makes you think of Third World countries) should have access to the ballot.

Where did it go wrong? In my view, the largest corruption of the system came with the Wilson Pakula Act of 1947, in which party leadership must agree before someone who is not a member of their party can run on their ballot line.

Because of this, the system is now set up with all the power of the political parties concentrated in the hands of a few. An independent (think former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) must get a Wilson Pakula waiver from the party whose line he wishes to run on (think Republicans in 2009). That waiver comes from the party’s ruling board and, in many cases is controlled by the state chairman (think the Conservative Party’s Michael Long).

This has led to allegations in some instances that politicians can effectively buy their way onto a third-party line (think Rob Astorino’s allegation against the Independence Party). And while no minor party would ever admit this, the possibility definitely exists.

Now, back to Tuesday. If the Family Court judge candidates were forced to run on the line of the party to which they belong, we would have had a Republican primary. The Green Party would have had to find someone in its own party, or not have a candidate.

Ditto the Conservative and Independence parties. While the state’s Conservative Party has been around for more than 50 years, the Independence Party is much newer. Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham was once a bigwig in the Independence Party, but he wandered away from it after a while for reasons I don’t immediately remember.

There is no formal Independence Party presence left in Jefferson County — no county committee, no organizational structure. It is mostly a shell that offers a ballot line to whoever wanders in and asks for it — or, in the case of Tuesday, runs in the primary for it.

Between Wilson Pakula and the state’s opportunity to ballot process (briefly, this allows a candidate from any party to petition for the opportunity to write in a candidate in a party that otherwise would not have a party — think Conservative Party in the 116th Assembly District), any legitimate effort to promote third parties has been impossibly corrupted.

Third-party ballot lines should not be bailout positions for otherwise failed candidates. One example is the governor’s race. Had Andrew Cuomo actually lost to Zephyr Teachout, he still would appear on three other ballot lines — including the Independence Party line.

Of note: a story by the New York Daily News a couple of years ago suggested that the Independence Party is the third-largest party in the state primarily because a majority of its members registered in the party because they thought it was an INDEPENDENT party — in other words, no party. And this year, former state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs called the party a “political cesspool” in a television interview.

But I digress. The system of fusion voting — allowing candidates to cross party lines to seek election — is ripe for corruption. And it fosters some Quixotic quests that the voters could best do without.

As an example: Kathy Quencer was pretty well beaten in two of the four party primaries she was in Tuesday, but she won the Independence Party nomination. So Gene Langone will appear on the Republican, Conservative and Green Party lines; Susan Sovie will appear on the Democratic Party line; and Ms. Quencer will appear on the Independence Party line. She has the same chance of winning from there as Jimmy McMillan did on The Rent Is Too Damn High Party line in 2010. (That party has been nominating candidates since 2005, making it at least as legitimate as the Independence Party.)

So Ms. Quencer faces a big question now: to campaign, or to gracefully bow out? Given the futility of her quest, and the importance of the job, fading away and coming back another day would be the best decision she could make. If the state didn’t have fusion voting, she wouldn’t have to face the question at all.

And we should offer kudos to Paul Trudeau and Colleen O’Neill. They refused to play the fusion game, electing instead to go toe-to-toe in the primary for all the marbles. Ms. O’Neill won, and now voters can choose straight up and down on Nov. 4 between her and Republican John Bocciolatt.

New York needs to reform the system. Repeal Wilson Pakula. Let true independent candidates obtain ballot space by petition, which they can do now.

Stop the political gaming of the system, and end voter confusion. It all makes a great deal of sense, which is why it probably won’t happen. But I can dream ...

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Jobs-resistant north country deserves better results

First published: September 07, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: September 05, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Last week, the federal government announced that August job growth was less than 150,000, a stumble along the path that has averaged more than 200,000 jobs a month this year. And while the report showed fewer jobs created than economists anticipated, it did show continued growth in jobs nationwide.

While the state as a whole and the United States have enjoyed relatively consistent job growth over the past 18 months, the north county has been going the other way. The number of employed people in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties was 97,100 in April 2013, but only 96,400 this April.

The sad state of affairs in the region must be addressed. Unfortunately, no one has as yet come up with a way to address it. Despite the best efforts of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council and the Development Authority of the North Country, net creation of jobs has remained a distant target. The Times happily chronicles the jobs that are added, and writes somberly about jobs lost. But we only report the news; we don’t create it. And the news is mostly bad, often even when it appears on the surface to be good.

For every Stream, there are two Covidiens or McGrann Papers or Alcoa Easts or, worst of all, General Motors. For every $9- to $11-an-hour job gained, we seem to lose about one and a half $15- to $18-an-hour positions. The pool of spendable money in the north country never seems to keep up with inflation — let alone grow enough to generate growth. Jefferson County has a surfeit of minimum wage and barely above jobs in its retail and hospitality and service sectors, and the growth of the retail and hospitality opportunities could lull us into a false sense of growth. That growth, however, is hollow if what we’re adding is another beauty shop, another pizza parlor, another chain restaurant. Those jobs, in general, hardly present a living wage for a single parent. The result is that the pressure increases on social services and private charitable agencies but fails to lift the economic tide much, if at all.

In the midst of this are the economic development efforts of local government. Their efforts vary widely by county, but the end result seems depressingly the same: there isn’t much economy being developed anywhere.

In St. Lawrence County, it appears that a wildly disproportionate amount of effort has been expended on the pie-in-the-sky concept of a “rooftop highway.” What a waste of human and financial capital. It isn’t enough that in the age of the sequester and the gap elimination adjustment someone thinks there will be sufficient federal and state funding to pay for a multi-billion-dollar highway to Nowhere. What really should rankle is that while economic development efforts are being directed to this notion, real, possible projects are being treated like red-headed stepchildren.

This is especially distressing for two reasons. The first is that the county is uniquely placed to use sweetheart power prices to lure both U.S. and Canadian businesses, and far more effort should be dedicated to securing new jobs through that resource. The second is that no county that has had a limited-access interstate highway built through it, at least in this state, has ever reaped the benefits they were promised by the highways’ proponents. Doubt this? Drive Route 11 between the Canadian and Pennsylvania borders and tell me what you see. Drive Route 7 from Binghamton to Schenectady, or Route 20 from Buffalo to Albany, or a parallel road for any interstate in New York. Tell me how many thriving Main Streets and blockbuster economies you find.

I await your report.

In Lewis County, there is a barely above-the-surface battle being waged between the county Legislature and the several economic development agencies and groups to establish a coherent plan to lure new businesses that will bring new jobs there. For the past several years, a disproportionate amount of attention has been paid to what can best be termed outdoor tourism — the all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile crowd.

All other issues surrounding the way Lewis County has developed a “trail” system for ATV use aside, and all studies of how much an ATV owner spends on a big ATV weekend notwithstanding, the financial benefits of this specialized trade is tightly focused on hospitality and service industries. As noted above, these are not the kind of jobs that sustain a household. As for the argument that snowmobilers and ATVers add to the property tax base, you must be kidding. Those who buy camps in Lewis County are buying existing inventory, in nearly all cases. None of that was tax exempt before, so where that big gain is doesn’t immediately appear clear.

Lewis County could really benefit from more value-added agricultural businesses. Edmeston, Chenango County, somehow enticed a very large yogurt operation. I used to umpire in Edmeston, and I can tell you it doesn’t have anything that Lewis County doesn’t have. If there have been substantial efforts to lure this kind of business, we have no evidence of that.

In Jefferson County, economic development has been mowed over by a dearth of rental housing. For the past four years, nearly every payment in lieu of taxes agreement has been afforded to housing projects. And no doubt there was a need — there was insufficient housing to serve all of Fort Drum, and a continuing shortage would have been a red flag to future base closure studies. It was needed. But now the build-out is nearing an end. And we frankly don’t see the shift of focus needed to adequately address the jobs problem.

Jefferson County is also plagued by so many competing “economic development” agencies that it is hard to understand how they could not be tripping all over each other. The state comptroller forced some consolidation of that by kicking employees of local development corporations out of the state retirement system. Still, too many cooks dilute the broth.

There is no doubt that trying to lure new businesses to a given region is a daunting task. With the amount of corporate welfare being doled out across the U.S., we no longer are competing with Syracuse and Rochester — we are competing with Raleigh and Fort Worth and Seattle. Because of that, we should refocus and fine tune economic development efforts. We should think first of the county and next of the region, in doing so recognizing that these three counties should be supporting each other whenever and wherever that makes sense.

And we should start marshalling our development resources. Spending $5,000 on a table simply because taking the old table apart might make it tough to reassemble is the kind of decision that destroys the public credibility of an industrial development agency. Having a couple hundred thousand dollars of bad debt tied up in pizza parlors should tell a public funding agency that it should redirect its efforts. Pushing PILOT agreements for projects that don’t create a single long-term job harms taxpayers who have to share an increasingly large and residentially focused tax burden.

And finally, those taxpayers are supposed to be the beneficiaries of economic development efforts. You might have to buttonhole an awful lot of north country taxpayers before you can find one who could point to something a local IDA has done for him or her. And you’d certainly have to stop a whole lot more before you’d find one who could explain the corresponding county’s economic development philosophy. That’s if you could find anyone at all able to do that.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Cut and run was a bad strategy for Elise Stefanik

First published: August 31, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: August 29, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Even by the low standards of this year’s scramble to replace U.S. Rep. William L. Owens in the 21st Congressional District, last week was less than sterling for either of the major party candidates. And both are stumbling around an issue that is vitally important across the nation: How will we fix Social Security and Medicare?

Both Republican Elise M. Stefanik and Democrat Aaron G. Woolf have called news conferences recently (both after Times reporter Dan Flatley interviewed them extensively on the subject) to highlight their Social Security policy beliefs. And in their efforts to make us feel good about their proposals to save Social Security and Medicare, both have stumbled badly.

Mr. Woolf’s problem is that his solution — raise the minimum wage and let the ensuing economic leap take care of the funding gap — is almost universally rejected by experts as simplistic and unreasonable because it relies on hope. And hope, as my boss is unduly fond of saying, is not a strategy.

Ms. Stefanik’s stumble was, however, in many ways deeper. She committed the ultimate political sin: She called a news conference to discuss a particular subject, then she ran away from the questions her position engendered.

Seeing Ms. Stefanik flee from Albany television reporter Steve Flamisch when he asked her to define a term she used was like watching a renowned singer flee the stage for forgetting the lyrics to a song. As any number of performers have shown at scores of sporting events, if you forget the words to the national anthem, fake it until the music stops.

Elise Stefanik was unable to either answer Mr. Flamisch’s question or fake it until the questions stopped. Seeing the video of her fleeing the stage that she alone provided, a grim, tight smile on her face, was like watching spilled Champagne circling the drain — you wanted to save it, but there was no way it was possible.

The rule of politics that applies here is never let them see you blanch, let alone cry. Mr. Flamisch was not attacking Ms. Stefanik’s character, or her family or even whether she is a legitimate resident of the 21st Congressional District. He was trying to get her to define the term “near retirement.”

After all, while Ms. Stefanik said she endorses an increase in the retirement age to help preserve the Social Security trust fund, she said she would protect people who are “near retirement.” Once she introduced the phrase, she should have been prepared to explain it.

Does near retirement mean people in their 50s? In their early 60s? Over 45? This is a critical detail to people.

Telling a person who is 62 (I don’t pick this age randomly) “tough luck, buddy — you can’t retire until you’re 68!” is a very big deal. If you tell someone who is 40, and already looking at more than 25 years to retirement, you at least give that person time to make personal choices — increase retirement savings, for example — that could mitigate the bad news.

So Mr. Flamisch’s question was a very important one. And it is a logical question that follows use of the amorphous term “near retirement” that any politician should be prepared for.

Let’s not forget, here, that a major point of pride in Elise Stefanik’s resume is the work she did prepping vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan for his national debate with Joe Biden leading up to the 2012 election. You do that kind of work, you should understand how to anticipate questions that may arise.

And if you are a national-quality politician, you have to know how to deflect questions that you are unprepared to answer. “The answer to that question is one that my policy team is working on. And while I don’t have an answer right this minute, I will soon and I’ll get it to you” and any number of variations on that theme are the kind of answer that big-league politicians can come up with on their feet. Elise, instead, “clammed up and ran,” as a colleague expressed it to me.

This was a decision that could come back to haunt her. If she thinks people over 50 don’t care about this, she’s dead wrong.

And that demographic of voters is one you don’t want to alienate because they are far more reliable voters than are younger people. Any perception that she does not understand the issue or that she is only giving it lip service has the potential to hurt her in November.

Beyond the specific issue, a politician who cuts and runs from difficult questions creates at least the perception that he or she doesn’t have what it takes to hold a congressional office. When that vote to support Fort Drum comes up and her party bosses don’t want to see it pass, we want her to be able to stand up strong and vote for this district. If she is intimidated by a persistent reporter, how is she going to stand up to the speaker of the House?

Both John M. McHugh, who is as smooth as a river-scoured log, and Bill Owens knew not to cut and run. When push came to shove, both would stand their ground and respond. In her flight from the press in Glens Falls, Ms. Stefanik has now introduced a new question into the campaign mix: Can she take the pressure?

She needs to answer that sooner rather than later. Many people understand this; the Glens Falls Post-Star ran a great editorial that challenges all the 21st District candidates to show us what they’re made of. Right now, Ms. Stefanik needs to do that more urgently than do Mr. Woolf or Green Party candidate Matthew J. Funiciello.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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St. Lawrence County’s persistent borrowing is a stain on county government

First published: August 24, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: August 22, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Those of a certain age are probably familiar with the tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

The Hans Christian Anderson tale is about a pair of con men who convince a vain emperor that they can weave and sew magical clothes that are seen only by those who were fit for the position they held, and not fools. The pair created imaginary clothes that all who failed to see praised because they did not want to be seen as unfit for their position, or fools. In the end, only a child would point out that the emperor was clad in nothing at all while all the rest ignored the obvious facts.

As the St. Lawrence County Legislature approved yet another year of borrowing in the millions to “get through the year,” I couldn’t help but think of the popular fairy tale.

County officials, including county Manager Karen M. St. Hilaire and Treasurer Donald M. Felt, have convinced the Legislature that the continued borrowing is the only solution to keep the cash-strapped county solvent. They blame the persistent shortage on the county’s depleted fund balance, the state’s failure to pay some of its bills on time and the break in the gambling compact revenue stream that came when the Mohawks put their payments in escrow pending the resolution of a territorial dispute with the state.

In other words, this is all somebody else’s fault.

It has been almost painful to watch officials in St. Lawrence County struggle with governance. In just a few short years, for example, the county has gone from an inappropriately large fund balance to one that is woefully short.

How did they do that? By blindly propping up the tax levy with infusions from the unallocated fund balance.

For three straight years, the Legislature applied $7 million from that balance to the levy. At that rate, it didn’t take long to take the county’s rainy-day fund from $22 million down to $3 million. For those wondering about such things, based on the county’s annual spending, the state Comptroller’s Office recommends a balance of $10 million to $12 million.

Since 2011, the county has reverted to borrowing, ranging from $12.5 million to $10 million, to remain solvent. And Mr. Felt said last week that this trend is likely to continue for years to come.

He is less quick to point out that the borrowing has already cost the county at least $400,000, based on costs of debt service of at least $100,000 a year on the loans. The loan for 2013 won’t be paid off until this week, which means that the 2014 loan was actually authorized before the 2013 loan was retired.

While members of the Legislature have grumbled about this practice, in the most recent authorization no one voted against it — perhaps they were afraid they would be thought to be unfit for their positions.

To blame poor financial planning on slow state payments and the failure of compact funds to be paid lays a county flaw at the doors of others. To suggest the depleted fund balance is anyone’s fault but the county Legislature, aided and abetted by its budget preparation team, is simply dissembling.

Meanwhile, the county does things like pay $60,000 to a lobbying firm — are you kidding me? — and makes overbudgeting of revenues an art form. The county finally received a 25 percent increase in its share of the sales tax collected in the county, and yet there is no end to borrowing to meet cash needs.

It is instructive to look to similarly situated counties to assess the depth of the problem in St. Lawrence County. Neither Lewis nor Jefferson counties, for example, is awash in cash. But they aren’t borrowing millions of dollars each year to keep from bouncing checks. There is a reason for this: planning.

The state requires that counties have their yearly budgets in place before the new budget year arrives. And it allows them to collect their tax levy revenues in the first 58 days of the year.

Thus, a large portion of county revenues are in county bank accounts long before a significant portion of county spending occurs. And while St. Lawrence County officials complain about slow payments from outside sources, a Jefferson County legislator pointed out that those are still largely predictable. So it isn’t really a mystery when the county will get its money from various sources.

What delineates St. Lawrence County from its neighbors and from the majority of counties in the state? Poor planning and an unwillingness to make hard choices. And, it appears, specious logic, at least in some cases.

Mr. Felt told the Legislature he was eager to get his hands on the borrowed money so he could get a $65,000 bonus from paying the state retirement fund early, in December.

However, the county gets sales tax revenues and property tax revenues just about the time the retirement fund money is due. So is that $65,000, balanced against $100,000 in borrowing costs, any real benefit?

Officials in other counties say they don’t have to borrow because they conservatively budget revenues, they develop budget calendars that accurately reflect income and obligations and they don’t let their fund balances drop so low that there is nothing there to take care of short-term cash flow problems.

So why isn’t that being done in St. Lawrence County? Having this cash-flow crisis occur once could perhaps be acceptable. To have it happen every year, year after year, far into the future, without being challenged by the residents and by the members of the Legislature, is a sad, sad example of the emperor’s new clothes.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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It’s time to stop St. Lawrence County’s civil war

First published: July 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm
Last modified: July 16, 2014 at 2:05 pm

A state Supreme Court judge has told St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain to do what many north country residents have been hoping she would do on her own for a few weeks — stop using her office as a political weapon.

Ms. Rain, in her sixth month as DA, informed county officials that she would take to a grand jury two actions that qualify, at very worst, as an error of omission and a just marginally questionable policy decision. In the former, the DA is suggesting that the county’s failure to reapply for a grant that would have ultimately benefitted her office is a criminal matter. In the latter, she is proposing that a decision on how to use legitimately acquired drug forfeiture funds constituted a crime.

Of course, the DA never came right out and said either action was criminal. But her decision to take them to a grand jury, and her subpoena of county records dating back 10 years, speaks for itself.

Tuesday, Judge Vito C. Caruso of the Fourth Judicial District put a halt to the DA’s probe and ordered her to show cause why Ms. Rain should not be disqualified from continuing the investigation. If she is unable to convince Judge Caruso otherwise, a special prosecutor would be appointed by the court.

The decision may have headed off a confrontation that would have been disastrous for the county. This civil war was not going to have any good outcome, and it was going to be a huge drain on the county’s taxpayers. The cost of complying with subpoenas and providing defense for county employees would have been an outrageous waste of money. And it would serve no legitimate purpose.

If Mary Rain thinks she is the defender of the public good, maybe she should have started by going after the state of New York — for diverting Lottery funds to the general fund, for example, or for failing to remove the tolls from the Thruway as promised when the toll road was built back in the 1950s or for Gov. Cuomo’s plan to use Clean Water Funds to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Those are all public policy decisions that fly in the face of best intentions.

Or, closer to home, she could go after the town of Brasher for using casino funds to construct its new highway barn. Those funds are supposed to be targeted at economic development, after all.

Ms. Rain will not do any of these things, of course, for a couple of reasons. First, she is not in a political dispute with the state or the town of Brasher. More importantly, all those decision, while perhaps outside the pale of original intentions, served the general interests of the taxpayer. The actions she is pursuing against the county never come close to reaching the level of falling outside of the law.

The failure of the county to apply for the Office of Victim Services grant was not intentional, although the loss of the funds puts the county in a bind. But it would appear that Ms. Rain bears some responsibility for the missed grant application; the funds would have paid for two victims advocates within the DA’s office for five years. The application had in the past been completed by the Probation Department, but county officials say this was done as a “courtesy” and noted that the DA received five notices of the application deadline that her personnel ignored. The joint culpability here seems obvious.

And the county’s decision to use forfeiture funds for a sound system in a public room that is from time to time used as a courtroom and a grand jury room barely stretches the requirement that those funds be used to enhance the legal system — if it stretches it at all.

Everyone would applaud an effort by a public official to right wrongs and punish public corruption. But using public money to chase political foes is wrong. Ms. Rain and the county have clashed over spending since she took office, and the path from A to B seems pretty clear here. Unfortunately, already beleaguered taxpayers of St. Lawrence County are going to have to pay for this poorly designed action. If the court decides that this probe should go forward, it should put it in someone else’s hands. That will remove petty politics from the field of play, and assure county residents the will not be pawns in ill-advised conflict.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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‘Left-out’ officials can help make best of new Mohawk land pact

First published: June 01, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 31, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Now that the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe have reached a long-negotiated agreement to end the tribe’s land claim against the state, the voices of those who were not offered a seat at the negotiating table are being raised in protest. It is fair to suppose, however, that without a cerain constriction of the negotiation team, too many separate agendas would have made the pact impossible to ratify.

The land claim goes back to 1982. The genesis of the claim, however, dates to a 1797 treaty between New York and the Mohawks in which two deputies of the tribe, Joseph Brandt and John Deserontyon, agree to cede all tribal lands to the state in exchange for $1,000 for the tribe, and $600 apiece for the tribal negotiators. The treaty was never ratified by Congress, which was a violation of the federal Indian Non-Intercourse Act, designed to prevent the states from entering into often predatory treaties with tribes – such as the one with the Mohawks.

The federal government laid the foundation for future land claims with treaties beginning with the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwyx and most notably inclusive of the Iroquois Nation in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which promised the tribes sovereignty within their established reservations, and promised, in addition, $4,500 per year from the federal government to provide for the general welfare of the tribes.

The Mohawk claim languished in the federal courts for decades, while a series of federal court rulings were issued that militated against tribal claims. The decisions leaned heavily on the principle of laches, a defense that an action could have an unfairly negative effect on parties not central to the action — in the case of the tribal land claims, the owners of lands within the claim area who would suffer if an adverse ruling were issued.

The Mohawk case was eventually broken open with a ruling that while 85 percent of the land claim was improper under laches, a three-sided area that appeared to have been carved from the reserve did not meet the laches test because tribal members already owned a significant part of the Hogansburg Triangle, and the case was allowed to proceed.

This ruling, and the desire by the state to break a boycott of tribal payments due from its Hogansburg casino, led to serious negotiations. They yielded an agreement that will see St. Lawrence County and the towns of Massena and Brasher receive compensation from both the tribe and the state, and in turn the tribe will receive payments from the New York Power Authority and an allocation of low-cost power from the authority’s Massena generating facility. No private landowners within the settlement area will be compelled to sell their land, but land purchased from willing sellers by the tribe will be added to the St. Regis Reservation.

In a difficult environment, it appears that a reasonable settlement has been achieved. The state and localities will receive the casino compensation that was long ago agreed to. The county will receive an unrestricted $4 million annual payment from the state. The tribe will honor its casino payment agreement, but receive compensation from the tribe from NYPA, whose Moses-Saunders site has affected tribal lands, and get low-cost power the tribe can use to try to lure job-creating industry to the reservation.

And within hours of the announcement of the agreement, supervisors in Massena and Brasher have commenced to whine about being excluded from the talks, and members of the traditional Mohawk faction are complaining they, too, were excluded.

The Akwesasne Mohawks across the border in Canada were not made part of the talks because their reservation is outside of the state. The traditional Mohawks were likely not included because they are almost always at cross-purposes with the recognized tribal government. It’s likely the recognized tribal government wanted to focus the tribal interests during the negotiations.

The matter of the lack of town representation in the talks is in keeping with what appears to be a basic practice of the Cuomo administration to do as much as possible in secret with the fewest possible participants. Then it trots out its agreement as a done deal, with everyone smiling in the background.

In this case, however, that process yielded results that have not been forthcoming over the past 30 years. And given the very narrow basis of the settlement — only a small portion of the initial land claim formed the basis of the settlement of the entire land claim, and the landowners within that area are protected from the forced loss of their land — it is difficult to suggest that the addition of two town supervisors into the negotiating mix would have provided any superior results.

Brasher Supervisor James Dawson and Massena Supervisor Joseph Gray act like they’ve been shut out of the benefits of the deal. Nothing is further from the truth; both towns have been guaranteed by the state that they will lose no tax revenues from land that is included in the reservation, both will have access to a significant amount of casino money that has been withheld for the past four years and Massena will get the additional benefit of a lucrative rental agreement with NYPA for a building at the town-owned airport that will bring it revenue for years to come.

This settlement is long overdue and everyone wins a little something. The tribe can add the Hogansburg Triangle lands, over time, to the reservation and it will get money and electrical power from NYPA. The state frees up the casino money for itself and the municipalities. The municipalities get a reasonably reliable infusion of money each year. And the land claim ends, giving landowners the peace of mind that they will not, at the whim of some court, lose their land.

Joe Gray and Jim Dawson have indulged in their whine. Now it’s time to figure out the best use of the settlement’s terms for the municipalities, and put this centuries-old dispute to rest.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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The swamp is dark and the water is rising

First published: May 25, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 24, 2014 at 10:31 pm

An unknown man shows up at a residence, passes himself off as a reporter (he’s not one) and starts asking questions about the family inside.

A different unknown man sits on a quiet street for hours, leaving only to follow the residents of a particular house he’s watching.

An operative of a Washington firm sends a series of documents to a paper in a rural congressional district, telling the reporter he contacts that if he doesn’t print them quickly, he’ll take the documents to someone else who will print them.

Television pilot? Self-published political thriller? LSD-induced hallucination? Nope. Just another day in the life of the 21st Congressional District.

For the staff of the Times, it was a head-shaker of a week. When Dan Flatley started talking about his encounter with a Washington private investigator, it piqued our interest. When we got a look at the documents, it got us shaking our heads. What is the point, we all asked each other. None of the documents was new, all of them were publicly available and their subject matter was, at best, snooze inducing.

Then we found out about the intrusions at one candidate’s house, and were reminded that we were recently told about the faux reporter incident at the other’s residence. Everyone involved in the 21st CD race seemed legitimately shocked and outraged, including the Democratic candidate’s campaign. What, everyone was wondering, is going on?

I’m not naming any of the candidates because, well, I’m tired of being accused of coddling one, or the other, or going after one, or the other. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to ask who gains from all this silly subterfuge?

Each Republican candidate suggested the other was at fault, until we asked “Who gains?” With the apparent targeting of each of them, they both suggested the Democrat gains.

But the Democrat logically responded that until there is a nominated Republican, going after both of them would be senseless. And expensive. And likely with no real gain.

So we return to the question: who gains?

We must return to the known facts. The documents we received which were reported to damage the campaign of one of the candidates did not plow new ground, did not provide unknown information, did not make substantive claims of a damaging nature. The mysterious appearance of unknown men at both candidates’ homes was disturbing but yielded no “dirt.” Thus, all the efforts were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as the Bard wrote.

A little investigation into the source of the documents, however, has yielded some interesting tidbits. Two of the principals have publicly documented ties to the upper echelons of the Republican Party. One partner was a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner, and before that an aide to the House Whip. He also was the chief researcher for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Another partner was a U.S. Senate staff member and worked on presidential campaigns. This is a firm connected at the hip to the top of the Republican Party. So one has to ask: why would they be dropping a dime on a candidate also deeply connected to the party leadership?

As to the “trackers,” all we can prove is that one is from Yonkers — that’s a pretty good haul from the suburbs of Albany — and the other one is NOT a reporter from the Watertown Daily Times. But somebody is paying them.

This swamp has gotten deep in a very short time. It appears that some of the key players are “not from around here,” as they say in Maine. The kerfuffle all this has caused has been a distraction from a campaign that is rapidly moving toward conclusion. And, as one Republican candidate noted, it really has nothing at all to do with issues of importance to the 21st Congressional District.

We want to know what’s going on and we’re going to keep digging to find out. But we hope all the candidates, from all the parties, remember that this is a vital political race to determine who will represent a deeply under-represented area in Congress. The Republican candidates, especially, need to stay focused on the issues of critical importance to the north country: jobs, health care, Fort Drum, the border, the St. Lawrence Seaway. They need to forget about the subterfuge that is plaguing the race and instead convince the voters that one of them is worthy to represent us in Washington. Then we have to hope like hell one of them is.

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What they don’t say when they speak through emails

First published: May 18, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 17, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Technological advances have been great for journalists. We have the ability, today, to report instantaneously from remote locations, to provide decent quality video by virtually every reporter, to live Tweet breaking news events to keep our audience “live at the scene.”

And at the Times, we’ve invested to stay current. We have tablets and Chromebooks and notebooks and laptops that can hook remotely to our content management system, meaning we can send stories into our system as quickly as they can be typed, rather than having to bring the reporters back to the “mother ship” to write their stories. We have numerous devices that can shoot both still and video photos, in extremely high resolution.

All this combines for a more immediate and timely report, delivered on multiple platforms. We are no longer tied to our print product; with our social media feeds and website, we are as immediate as you can get. But all that can mean a lot less if we can’t deliver all the news of a particular story. And the technology that has so liberated us in other areas has constricted us in reporting our stories because email and text messages are proving to be extremely frustrating contact points to our sources.

On the surface, one might think that email transmissions would make our report more accurate, because no one can dispute the accuracy of a quote delivered by email. And when no other contact can work — say your source is in Nepal, with no reliable phone service but with an Internet connection, as an example — a series of emails can get the job done.

Sadly, we don’t have that many situations in which we need to interview a source in Nepal, or Diego Garcia. Nearly all our sources are in New York state, and the majority of them are in the north country. Yet, we have many people who request that we email them our questions, and they’ll get back to us.

Those that do, in many cases, do so because they have found this to be a convenient way to offer not-entirely-responsive answers, to provide “on-message” sound bites of very little value or to offer as a quote words that have been written by someone else.

I wrote a story this week about a Matthew A. Doheny campaign flier that contained false information about the Times. My contacts with the Doheny campaign were a not particularly satisfying combination of phone calls and emails. My contact with the Stefanik campaign, from whom I sought reactions, was entirely by email. In fact, efforts to get a voice associated with the Stefanik campaign has become increasingly difficult as the campaign has progressed.

And it’s not just campaign organizations that want to control their message so tightly that no actual words ever leave their candidates’ lips. Far worse, from the standpoint of the public’s right to know, are the responses of state agency “spokesmen.” I use the word in quotes because in more and more instances, these spokespeople never speak. They seek an email list of questions, they respond to any of them they wish to and they ignore those that make them uncomfortable, and our reading public often ends up with less public information from state government than they have a right to have.

I counsel our reporters to be persistent. To call early and often. To drive to a government office, if it is located somewhere near us, to seek a face-to-face meeting. Despite that, a reporter getting information from multiple sources, as we always demand, often finds that email responses provide an additional “voice” that adds to the story. And, as many reporters have pointed out to me, with some sources, it’s either an email exchange or no exchange at all — especially with state agencies.

But reporting, when it’s done right, is an endless uncovering of information. If you’re a good reporter, the answer to one question more often than not kicks up another question. And the answer to that may kick up yet another query. And so it goes. Except with an email exchange — that finite process stifles follow-up questions. It allows sound-bites and rote answers to supplant real information. It allows “speakers” to be spoken for by their hired flacks. It allows sources to provide answers that don’t really respond to the question asked.

In short, email interviews too often interfere with the reporting process, and too often interfere with the truth.

The rule that we follow at Northern New York Newspapers right now is, if a quote comes from an email, it must be designated as such. If an entire exchange is from an email, that must be adequately explained. That rule lets readers know that this quote might be tainted, which is important. But it doesn’t address the greater question of whether we should routinely be resorting to email exchanges in lieu of a voice-to-voice interview, or if we should place some restrictions on that as a news gathering resource. Our reporting staff is mulling the question, and I hope to find a place where we can establish processes and policies that answer the deficiencies of email interviews. If you want, I can send you an email on that.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at 661-2351. (Or, if you must, at pwhite@What they ...)

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A story best written as an autobiography

First published: May 13, 2014 at 12:37 pm
Last modified: May 13, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Darrel Aubertine, one of the best known political figures in Jefferson County whose career has ranged from farmer to county legislator to state legislator to commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, can’t seem to stay away from political IEDs.

The most recent example of this is the assertion by state Sen. Malcolm Smith that he “bought” the votes of eight fellow senators in 2008 to help him be elected majority leader. According to state Board of Election records, Darrel’s campaign committee received five donations from Sen. Smith totaling $9,500 in the month before the general election.

The New York Post reported that Mr. Smith alleged the eight candidates he supported were “on the payroll” to vote for him. The allegation is damning and needs to be addressed by Mr. Aubertine. But we presented him a number of opportunities to respond to them before we published Ted Booker’s story on the allegations, and he failed to respond.

Tis a pity. Because I suspect that Darrel’s reaction was one of surprise rather than resignation. We can’t know how all this went down, but let’s be fair: quid pro quo among senators in the same party is part of the definition of politics, and this type of quid pro quo hardly qualifies as being “on the payroll” for anyone.

A quick look at the campaign finance records of any state legislator who has faced a tough election battle will reveal that other state legislators of the same party facing little or no opposition frequently “share” their campaign chests with their embattled colleagues. As a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, Darrel NEVER had an easy campaign. That he would get help from his colleagues should be expected, not wondered at.

Sen. Smith is now under investigation for trying to bribe his way onto the Republican Party line in the last New York City mayoral election. This should tell you all you need to know about Mr. Smith’s ethical challenges and his problem-solving skills. With a couple dozen people seeking a ballot spot to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many of them real Republicans, any Democrat who thought cash would bring him an easy Wilson-Pakula designation to run on the party’s line was short in the reasoning department.

The allegation that Sen. Smith had fellow senators “on the payroll” was made to an FBI informant at a restaurant, and smacks of baloney and bravura. It doesn’t ring at all true.

And had Darrel jumped out in front of this, explained this was Sen. Smith’s version and that it didn’t reflect what he and the other senators understood, the lede on the story would have been very different. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Like a lot of politicians in this era, Darrel adopted a rope-a-dope strategy, pulling into a shell until it all blew over. Such a pity, when the truth would have served so well.

It unfortunately doesn’t end there, however. The continuing controversy over Cape Vincent’s Water District 2 has embroiled the Aubertine family, and the dispute, which would likely be a mere kerfuffle in most towns, has once again pitted Cape Vincent residents in a pitched battle. The wind farm developers may have folded their tents and trudged out of town, but the discord they fostered just keeps on and on.

Like the Smith allegations, had Darrel jumped out in front of the water district issue, it probably wouldn’t still be simmering. When the district was formed 17 years ago, it included just four parcels, including the Aubertine’s. In the ensuing years, seven more property owners have tied into public water on Darrel’s property. The problem, boiled down, is simple: those users are not in the water district, and if they want public water, they should be. But Darrel stuck a rake in the propeller on this issue when he refused to let town consultants on his property to check the hookups.

It was a stubborn and retributive act, but it wasn’t sinful. There is no evidence that Darrel is unduly profiting from the outside users tapping into his line, nor other signs of impropriety. The town would be satisfied to resolve this by expanding the district, changing the manner of charging for water to make it fair for everyone, and moving on. But the families involved, including Darrel’s, were on the other side of the wind farm issue from the majority of the Town Council, and that has clouded everyone’s view. Although, to be fair, the council appears poised to compromise more than Darrel and his District 2 neighbors are.

So here is this man, a farmer at heart, embroiled in a couple of major controversies that he needn’t be tangled in. A simple statement of fact in the matter of the dubious Smith allegation, and some movement toward meaningful compromise in the water district matter, could completely clear the air. To date, neither appears to be forthcoming.

We all write our own stories. Our decisions speak for us and when those decisions don’t include explanations, we allow others to edit the text of our lives that we should control. Darrel Aubertine has had a remarkable life by any standard. He has served the town, the county and the state at many levels, and served well. His book is rich and full and fascinating, and now, at this point in his life, he should speak up and make sure he continues to write his own libretto.

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They gotta accentuate the negative

First published: May 11, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 10, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Politics in the era of the tea party, the Internet and partisan polarization has become a blood sport. Campaigns in recent years have been marked by the nasty, accusatory and personal (remember the Swiftboat Veterans) and have become more than ever marked by rote sound bites and unwavering, largely irrelevant messages.

Until the very recent past, however, primary campaigns have eschewed the take-no-prisoners tone of general elections. With the divisions in both main parties — ultraconservatives and moderates in the Republican Party, deeply liberals versus mildly progressives in the Democrats camp — primaries now have become the places where campaigns appear poised to eat their young.

And probably nowhere in the country is there a more bitter, personal campaign than the one between Republicans Elise Stefanik and Matt Doheny. A lot is at stake personally while, ironically, little is at stake for the party.

Republican strategists have looked at the 21st Congressional District and seen two young, attractive candidates slugging it out to represent the party against an engaging but politically naive Democrat, Aaron G. Woolf, who came late to the race and whose campaign has yet to gain a lot of momentum. For groups like the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, it is easy to stand aside while Ms. Stefanik and Mr. Doheny wale on each other. They are pretty confident that whomever emerges bloody but victorious from this primary will be ready to overwhelm Mr. Woolf in the general election.

And they’re ready to back up that conviction by having a pile of money waiting in the wings — for the winner. The loser can go home and lick his or her wounds.

It seems that a number of opportunities are being lost along the way. And from the peanut gallery, you can see all of the candidates employing strategies that you have to wonder about.

Take Mr. Doheny, for example. He has jumped into the pit on this campaign, slinging arrows at Ms. Stefanik for all manner of perceived failures of ideology on her part. They range from marginally appropriate to just plain silly. The Americans for Tax Freedom pledge not to raise taxes, for example, has been a major Doheny attack, because Ms. Stefanik refuses to sign it.

Matt: nobody cares. Ms. Stefanik was formed in the crucible of the Bush White House and Paul Ryan’s vice presidential campaign. Of the things you could legitimately criticize, her conservative credential is not one of them. She pledged to the residents of the 21st CD that she won’t raise taxes, and frankly, if I cared about that pledge (which I think is a short-sighted promise by any candidate), I would prefer she pledge me than pledge to Grover Norquist, who is so far out on the radical fringe he makes Attila look like a moderate.

And Mr. Doheny has made other claims that are at best tenuous. For example, I view it as walking pretty close to the edge for him to “blame” Ms. Stefanik for Bush’s fiscal policies to combat the country’s economic meltdown. Matt Doheny made millions of dollars on Wall Street, yet he castigates Ms. Stefanik for bailing out Wall Street and the big banks. If Mr. Doheny really doesn’t think the Great Recession needed government intervention to get the country back on track, he hasn’t adequately studied the potential consequences of the Bush administration standing down during a national crisis. And without the bailout, how would Mr. Doheny’s own financial statements look right now? He is a creature of Wall Street; he still makes his living in the world of finance, and while he should be proud of that, this attack on Ms. Stefanik smacks of hypocrisy.

It isn’t all about Mr. Doheny going for the jugular, however. The Stefanik campaign has been equally ruthless. She has criticized the timing of Mr. Doheny’s entrance into the race, his failure to oppose the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act, his Wall Street connections and even his conservative credentials.

Stop. From the standpoint of political philosophy, these two are mirror images.

Once you reach a certain point on the political spectrum, comparatives are irrelevant. Both of these candidates are at that point and beyond. Let’s stipulate they’re conservative and move on.

As for the SAFE Act, Ms. Stefanik has implied she is more interested in repealing it than Mr. Doheny. He has responded that no, he is more interested in repealing it. So, time for a quick political primer: federal elected officials are not allowed to dabble in state legislation. So they both ought to stop saying they’re going to help repeal it, because they can’t.

The irony of this bitter campaign is that there are very few points of contention between the two candidates. They both want to change the tax system, give breaks to taxpayers (when they really mean the top 10 percent of taxpayers), get rid of the Affordable Care Act and eviscerate environmental protection laws in the name of being “business friendly.”

Given the similarities, it was probably inevitable that the campaign become personal.

All Matt Doheny needed to do to win was campaign on his north country connections. That was a badge he earned in his prior runs against Bill Owens. He has been of the north country nearly all his life, and now he is of the north country, not of Manhattan. Elise Stefanik can trot out her Northern New York connection all she wants, but while she portrays it as a mile wide, any real probe shows it’s only a foot deep.

She looked around at the political atlas, saw a Democrat who might be vulnerable to a young, aggressive, attractive conservative female candidate, and made it happen. And you can’t hate her for that; from Bill Buckley to Robert Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, the state has a rich legacy of people moving here from elsewhere to pluck a political jewel or two.

But in the 21st district, all other things being equal, what sets Mr. Doheny apart from Ms. Stefanik is that he can legitimately claim he is “from here.” And with the name recognition from two other campaigns, that should have been enough to push him to a win in a sparsely attended primary. Had that been his campaign — “hey, I’m just as conservative as her but I’m your north country guy” — he’d have won.

Now, there is baggage from a negative campaign. While it extends to both candidates, it has more chance to slap Mr. Doheny upside the head. If it does, he has no one but himself (and his hired guns) to blame.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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