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Turmoil In Assembly Leads To Calls For Reform


The maneuvering for the next Speaker of the New York State Assembly is going on largely behind the scenes, and government reform groups say that’s the wrong way to begin a new era in what’s been called "the people’s house."  They’ve asked the announced candidates to commit to an open process, and want an answer before the weekend.

Assembly Democrats held two days of closed door meetings and then issued a brief statement, short on details, that the Assembly will vote on Monday to appoint Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle as acting Speaker, with an election on February 10th  for a permanent new speaker.

Government reform groups say they are disappointed with the lack of transparency so far. Dick Dadey is with Citizens Union.

“The whole process is a shameful exercise in undermining our democracy,” Dadey said.  “Too much of what happens in Albany happens behind closed doors.”

Dadey says although it is the job of the majority party in the chamber to elect the Speaker, the position is also accountable to the public at large. Under the constitution, the Speaker of the Assembly is fourth in line of succession, after the Senate President, if something happens to the governor. He says it’s not just an abstract concept. As recently as 2009, the state had no lieutenant governor and the Senate, in its own leadership crisis, for a time had no clear leader. 

And he says under a leadership driven system like New York’s, the Assembly Speaker is one of just three people, along with the governor and Senate leader, who make all of the major decisions about the budget and other important legislation that effects everyone in the state.

Dadey says there is precedent for a more public process. In 2007 the Comptroller of the state was forced to resign over corruption charges. The new comptroller, under the rules of the state’s constitution, was selected by a vote of the legislature, and hearings were held . Several candidates detailed their positions and answered questions.

“And they all made their case,” Dadey said.

In the end, the favorite candidate of the Assembly Democrats, Tom DiNapoli, won the post, and has since been re-elected in two general elections.

Dadey says the continued  secrecy has fueled the state’s present “culture of corruption”, that has led to serious charges against Speaker Silver and several other  past legislative leaders.

Meanwhile, the newer and younger members among the Assembly Democrats are also calling for some changes. Around two dozen have written a letter to the candidates for speaker, asking for, among other things, possible term limits for speaker and committee chairs. Angelo Santabarbara is beginning his second term representing parts of Schenectady and surrounding rural areas.

“I’d like to see operations less reliant on seniority,” Santabarbara says.

The newer members, who make up about 40 percent of the Democratic conference, say they also want all of the candidates to commit to a permanent reform task force, saying it’s the only way to restore the public’s  trust in the legislature. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.