Will The Watchdog Stay Awake?

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It’s hard to find a silver lining in the dark cloud that is the latest Monroe County Water Authority revelation.

The tale of how former water authority managers were enriched through unethical policies is dismal. The names involved – including former County Legislator and County Republican Chairman John Stanwix – are depressing.

It points up, once again, how lax is the general oversight of public authorities across New York. – from the lack of press scrutiny to the gaps in state government regulatory policy when it comes to these authorities. (Check CGR’s Erika Rosenberg for the best reading of what the state government can do when it comes to authorities.

But maybe we can find a little comfort here – the wisdom of the New York voter to apply an electoral check and balance to state government. I’m talking about the propensity of Empire State voters over the years to split the ticket and elect a state comptroller from the opposite political party than that of the state governor. This may very well have led to light being shed on the shenanigans of this local public authority – and the flaws in the state’s public authority system as well.

But the question is whether that check and balance will disappear after the 2006 election.

Look back over state government’s history and you’ll find that governors Nelson Rockefeller, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki all dealt with state comptrollers from the competing political party. Republican

Rockefeller had Democrat Arthur Levitt Sr. and Democrat Cuomo had GOPer Ned Regan (except for about 8 months of his 12-year tenure). Admittedly those early relationships had a more collegial feel, despite the party split. Regan early on was even criticized for being too chummy with the Cuomo administration. But as the years went on Regan dug in to Cuomo, criticizing him for relying on one-shot revenue gimmicks to balance the state budget and against Cuomo’s push for an environmental bond act in 1990.

Things became more charged when Pataki took the governor’s mansion and Democrat H. Carl McCall took over as comptroller. From the start Pataki and McCall were at odds with Pataki telling the New York Times in 1996 that McCall was “is an ambitious politician looking for an office and unfortunately, that makes (working together) very difficult.”

McCall fought Pataki on repealing the commuter tax in New York City and tried to curb the state’s ability to borrow funds. He charged Pataki with making policy for the state’s higher education system that was haphazard and politically influenced. In the end McCall did run against Pataki, failing to unseat him.

Enter Alan Hevesi, who has taken the comptroller’s oversight function to a new level. Locally he’s issued a series of tough reports on financial mismanagement – from the failure of the fast ferry project to the financial struggles of Gates.

And, of course, there was his office’s report on the county water authority. This is just part of a much larger effort by Hevesi to criticize the state’s public authority system. In 2004, Hevesi issued a report on authorities with the subtitle – “Reining in New York’s Secret Government.”

Hevesi has put the most sustained pressure on the reform of public authorities, a system ultimately controlled by the governor.

The worry is that Democrat Hevesi will ease up in 2007 should Democrat Eliot Spitzer take the governor’s mansion as most everyone expects.

Hevesi has what amounts to a long-shot opponent in Saratoga County Treasurer Christopher Callaghan. The challenger has tried to pin on Hevesi the charge that he weighs every audit with a political scale. He says he wants to return the comptroller’s office to what he called the more professional days of Levitt and Regan.

The Hevesi campaign has countered that he has already shown a propensity to criticize both Democrats and Republicans with his audits (that includes Monroe County where Democratic mayor Bill Johnson caught Hevesi flak just as Stanwix and Gates Supervisor Ralph Esposito did).

But the ultimate question remains: Will Hevesi be just as hard-nosed with a potential Democratic Governor Spitzer as he has been with a Republican Gov. Pataki?

There’s a question worth asking prior to November 7th.

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