Those Awkward Transitions

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Transitions are so uncomfortable. They come when you’re leaving a job or selling a house, when you’re breaking up a marriage or graduating from school. Birth is the ultimate transition.

How about that first date… who really enjoys it? The small talk. The nervous giggles. The checking and rechecking of every comment. Exhilarating and painful at turns.

Transitions mark endings and new beginnings – and these moments in time are fraught with danger. So people watch what they do, how they act, what they say.

It’s understandable, then, that Bob Duffy sounds reserved in the days after his landslide election and before he assumes office. He talks about following protocol and reminds us that Bill Johnson still holds the mayor’s office. He does this as he assembles his own staff and prepares for the job.

But for now, he sounds like something of a bystander. Of course, the problem for transitions in government is that the government business keeps chugging along. Sometimes, the most crucial of decisions get made during this time.

Two years ago County Clerk Maggie Brooks had just vanquished the same Bill Johnson to become county executive. Republican Jack Doyle still had a few more weeks left on the job. The offices of the county clerk and county executive were on either side of the county office building’s entrance – separated by about 25 feet. But it could have been a mile with the way Brooks talked during that month of transition.

The twist was that Monroe County’s government leaders were in the midst of a tough budget negotiation. Legislators had received a budget from Doyle that called for cuts to services, and an idea to raise the county’s share of the sales tax. It was a watershed budget – and it was necessary to close a multi-million deficit.

The Republican-controlled county legislature amended the budget plan and raised property taxes by the highest amount seen in a decade. It did away with any notion of a sales tax hike and it included service reductions. In this one action – the legislature reversed a long standing policy position by the Doyle administration – to keep the amount raised by property taxes frozen.

Even before the county executive’s election was done public opinion-makers, like those at our daily newspaper, urged a close relationship between Doyle and whoever won the race.

And let’s not forget that the winner, Maggie Brooks, had campaigned vigorously that she would continue the property tax standard championed by Doyle. But then – as county lawmakers of her own party voted for this budget with tax hikes, and as Doyle contemplated a veto – Brooks went oddly silent. Instead she talked about how it "wasn’t her job to go across the hall."

Some saw that as being deferential to Doyle. Others, largely in the opposition Democratic Party, saw this as a way for Brooks to have her cake and eat it too. She didn’t raise the taxes, the county legislature did. And a year later, that’s what we heard.

But, in fairness to Brooks and anyone else in this position, her term didn’t really start the morning after her election. It’s truly an odd time.

Look at Bob Duffy. While he waits for Johnson to move out of the mayor’s office, the city government has allowed some big changes to a very public, government-sponsored project – the Fast Ferry.

The decision to shorten its schedule was made during the transition period. And now a decision to borrow another $10 million to shore up the ferry appears likely to happen before the first of the year.

Duffy’s stance? Well, during the campaign he tacitly supported the project (he was not nearly as well defined in his approach to the ferry as, say, Tim Mains).

And since his election, Duffy said that he’s been briefed twice on the ferry – once for 90 minutes by the mayor and once by the city council (before the election concluded).

In a recent interview, Duffy sounded very comfortable with that fairly removed position: "I’m very cognizant of protocol. There’s one mayor and one mayor only through December 31."

We can appreciate this posture. But a transition should be more involved than this. One would expect Duffy to be almost like a trusted advisor to Johnson on matters such as this. Sure, Johnson still calls the shots. But Duffy ought to articulate if he likes what he’s hearing… if he will continue on with the policy enacted before he took office… if he might change it after January 2.

Just as with the Doyle-Brooks changeover – we’re talking about two people from the same political party, so there shouldn’t be the hurdle of partisan politics.

It’s not a matter of stepping on toes. It’s about a smooth handoff.

I remember from my days running track in high school that a relay race requires the two runners to stay with each other for a time before the baton is passed. Sounds reasonable with issues like the ferry.

But that’s easy to say, coming from a guy who had more of his share of lousy first dates.