New York State Assemblyman Mickey Kearns recently kept a campaign promise and voted against returning Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as one of the "three men in a room" spending billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Unfortunately for Kearns, he was only one of two Democrats to break ranks and oppose the second most powerful Democrat in New York. Typically, independent thinking representatives who cross the Speaker face stern retribution. I will not list examples, but if you happen to see former Democrat Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, he might be able to offer insight into landing on the wrong side of the Speaker.
The Buffalo News recently asked Kearns if he has felt any repercussions for campaigning that he would not support Silver as Assembly Speaker and subsequently keeping that promise. At the interview, Kearns apparently said there had been no retribution yet. He then added he has been waiting an inordinately long period of time for a bill number for a piece of legislation he has proposed. Without that bill number, the idea cannot be considered, even discussed. Simply put, it does not exist.
The idea Kearns proposes: make legal settlements a matter of public record. While Silver may be blocking the bill as an attack on Kearns, but it smells more like an attack on the citizens of New York State.
The Kearns bill may not officially exist in Albany, but the problem it addresses is widespread in the Empires State. Kearns first publicly discussed the issue in an "Another Voice" column in the Buffalo News on October 27, 2012. That was almost three months ago, for those clocking the speed of progress in Albany. Three months, and the idea still does not officially exist and therefore cannot be discussed in the State Legislature.
Taxpayers fund the New York State court system. Although subject to varying degrees of criticism, it provides valuable services, including assisting resolution of civil litigation. Most of the matters brought before the courts are settled through negotiation before trial, which is preferable to a decision imposed upon the parties. Settlements also save taxpayers the significant costs of a trial. However, getting to a settlement is also a lengthy and costly process; negotiations sometimes drag for years. Regardless, the fact that taxpayers pay considerably for this forum does not entitle them to settlement details.
Kearns makes a convincing case that New Yorkers deserve access to the substantive information contained in these settlements. In order to make informed decisions, people need information. In his October editorial, Kearns outlined several settlements involving products determined to be public health threats long after the secret cases were closed. If consumers were aware certain products had a legacy of injuring or killing people, they would have had better information to make smarter decisions and avoid putting themselves or their families at risk. Instead, we are flying blind.
Some organizations - like the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America and some schools - have entered into secret settlements to avoid scandal. As a result, parents unknowingly put their children in harm's way. Kearns believes a society that promotes and values education has a solemn responsibility to make resources available for safe and informed decision-making.
Speaker Silver is not against helping the people of New York State protect themselves. But by blocking the Kearns measure, who is Silver really protecting - big business? No. The anti-business climate Silver's Assembly marionettes have created is a testament to that. Is it the non-profits with the occasional bad actor who preys on the vulnerable? No. These groups are mostly true to their missions, but the grave nature of the wrongdoing makes exposure a must.
In fact, Silver is trying to protect is the system that has crowned him King - the New York State government.
Silver is acutely aware of secret settlements in government. Last year, his key Assembly ally Vito Lopez was accused of sexually harassing staff, an activity for which he had a whispered reputation. Silver approved a six-figure settlement to make it all go away. Those were taxpayer dollars. What did taxpayers get for their money? No explanation, no admissions, no details, no apologies. Was there even a vote to approve the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in this manner? No. Did 72-year-old Lopez learn a lesson from his behavior? Only that he could get away with it.
Worse, what did innumerable State government staffers learn about egregious Albany behavior? Only that if something bad happens, it will surely be covered up - so shut up.
All levels of government enter into secret settlements every day, all paid for with taxpayer dollars. But most of the time taxpayers are clueless. Why was the case settled? What hazardous condition led to injury or damage? Was the faulty condition corrected? We are not entitled to know, but we cannot.
Who was the attorney? Was the case settled as a favor to a campaign donor? How about a plaintiff with a frivolous claim? That's none of your business; just pay your taxes.
Transparency should be more than a campaign talking point - it is a consumer and taxpayer protection imperative. Yet Silver appears to view the Kearns proposal as a threat to his autocratic rule. Democrats among Silver's majority should ask simple questions: why not give consumers information to make better choices? Why not give families information to help them make good decisions for their children? Why not give voters information on how their tax dollars are being spent and what steps are being taken to make New York State safer, more transparent and more responsive to its citizens?
Instead, taxpayers are stuck wondering what is Speaker Silver hiding.
Comments? Please email me at Peter.R.Livingston@gmail.com.