Limits of power

I might have missed a few isolated hurricanes or major floods over the years, but I really can’t recall an official county-wide health emergency. Last week, county executive Pat Ryan, following Gov. Cuomo’s lead, declared such an emergency in regard to the coronavirus. President Trump came around shortly after. Once again, New York leads the country.

Being on unfamiliar and largely untested ground, few understand the limits of this kind of martial law., Executives have broad authority over county government operations. It would seem to vary with jurisdictions.

With concern rising almost hourly about the threat of the virus, Ryan acted quickly and decisively to limit exposure. He has said that his staff conferred closely with those most affected before taking action.

But Ryan’s reach, as he interpreted it, extended well beyond county government to include the county’s school districts. Ninety miles to the south, New York Mayor Bill deBlasio, after declaring a city emergency, differed. The largest school system in the nation will remain open, for now, he initially ruled. DeBlasio, perhaps channeling the president, apparently believed the threat level has not risen to the point of potential disaster and that disrupting a school year soon to end in about three months would cause undue hardship on students, parents and staff.

It has long been received wisdom to err on the side of caution on public health issues, in particular those involving children. As  the benighted mayor finally realized, this is no time to be playing guessing games.

That said, we need to carefully monitor the almost unlimited executive power we have placed in the hands of our leaders. It gets heady and might spill over into other non-crisis areas, perchance to linger. Or as Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  

Time marches on – I don’t think she was waving any red flags, but the state of county finances comptroller March Gallagher put out last Friday afternoon should give county fiscal officers food for thought.  

Gallagher’s report compared the ongoing decline in economic activity to the Great Recession of 08-09 where county sales tax declined by a whopping eight percent the second year. Gallagher said she was “just trying to be useful, but I’m sure bean counters on the sixth floor who monitor these situations on a daily basis are well aware of the critical impact of sales tax in county government.

This missive, I would think, was more about stating boundaries and responsibilities.

Both the executive and the comptroller are relatively new to government leadership. Ryan got a head start on Gallagher last June via special election; Gallagher is approaching her 80th day in office.

Ryan’s recent reference to Gallagher as a “partner” couldn’t have gone down well with framers of the 2006 charter who defined the comptroller as an independently elected watchdog.  

But neither official wishes to return to the dog-eat-dog adversarial relationship that existed for 10 years between former executive Mike Hein and comptroller Elliott Auerbach.

“We don’t have time for that bullshit,” said Gallagher. Setting the relationship more firmly in place, she added, “Just because we get along doesn’t mean we’re partners. I don’t report to him and he doesn’t supervise me.”

Politics being all about context, some may find it ironic that Auerbach was one of Gallagher’s earliest and most avid supporters of her candidacy to succeed him after he moved to state government as deputy comptroller.

One thought on “Limits of power

  1. Hugh, I need to comment here. First, I am raising a fiscal red flag. All tax revenues are going to take a precipitous downturn, even more than we thought last week. Even the governor himself just gave a dire warning on revenue projections “the world has changed 180 degrees three times” and revenue forecasts were likely “OUTRAGEOUSLY HIGH” and I agree. Second, Pat and I are working as hard as we both can for the people of Ulster County. I support and appreciate Pat Ryan’s leadership as our County Executive. My office is trying to better understand the role of auditors during an emergency but in the interim I will be directing my staff to do everything we can to assist the Ryan administration in addressing this calamity. For example, we have been looking at digital workflows and how to limit public health exposures to staff that must be present for financial operations.


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