August 04 , 2007

Can a player also be a referee?

Some question county election commissioners’ dual roles as party chairmen


Staff Reporter

Election Day this year will doubtless be a demanding one for Bill Wood and Bob Howe.
As chairmen of the county Democratic and Republican committees respectively, Wood and Howe will be closely monitoring the success of their candidates in dozens of town, city and county races, either toasting or bemoaning the results of a campaign in which the two chairmen will have poured a great deal of time and energy.
Meanwhile, as county election commissioners, Wood and Howe also will be charged with ensuring that the elections go off seamlessly, that all votes are counted and with mediating and delivering a united verdict on any and all political discrepancies that arise.
The issue of Howe and Wood’s dual roles, and the idea of the two major political parties overseeing elections, remains a divisive one, both locally and on state and national levels.
Those in favor of changing the current system say that the dual roles present an inevitable conflict of interest.
At the very least, they say, having partisan officials as election monitors creates a strong perception of impropriety.
Supporters, however, say having one official from each of the two parties provides a check-and-balance system that ensures propriety.
The debate ensnared Howe in June, when half of the Legislature’s eight-person Republican Caucus was joined by a number of Democrats in rejecting his reappointment as commissioner.
The Republican Caucus ultimately reappointed Howe independently of the Legislature. Merwin Armstrong (R-Cuyler, Solon and Truxton) changed his vote to favor Howe, saying he wanted to preserve party unity.
Conducting and participating in elections
New York state law requires that each county appoint one election commissioner from each of the two parties that received the most votes in the most recent gubernatorial election, according to Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the state Board of Elections.
There is no prohibition against party chairmen serving as election commissioners, Daghlian said; in fact more than 20 counties currently have at least one commissioner serving in both roles.
“The bottom line is, it’s politics, pure and simple, but if you’ve got one of them for each political party, and they’ve got to agree 100 percent on anything they do as commissioners, they’re both acting in the interest of their party and they balance each other out,” Daghlian said. “The system works politically, because both parties are a part of it, but it also ensures that business gets done.”
Still, having party chairmen as commissioners creates a “perception of impropriety,” a number of critics of Howe and Wood holding both positions said.
“Right now it’s election time, and if you have the two people who are the head of the political parties, who are very closely involved in the campaigns, but who also have influence over the whole election process, that’s going to cause people to question,” said Legislature Chairwoman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward), who voted against reappointing Howe in June.
Dr. Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, said that America’s use of partisan officials to monitor elections runs the risk of weakening voter confidence.
“That’s a perfect example of the problem, that those who conduct elections are also participants in them,” Pastor said of Wood and Howe’s dual roles in Cortland County.
Nationally, Pastor pointed to the 2000 presidential election when the crucial state of Florida was swung by a secretary of state who also happened to be President Bush’s state campaign chairwoman.
“That’s a big part of the reason for the decline nationally in voter confidence, because you just can’t be a referee and a player at the same time,” Pastor said.
Howe said he hasn’t seen any waning confidence from voters, and both he and Wood said they each take pains to ensure that they avoid doing party business while working in the elections office.
“I think years ago they used to get petitions ready in the elections office, but we’re very careful about keeping the two separate … I don’t do any party work in the election office,” said Wood, who noted that the Democrats have had at least three party chairmen — Bill Morgan and Victor and Peg Bahou — serve concurrently as commissioner in the past.
Both Wood and Howe also were anxious to dispel the belief that they’re responsible for counting votes, noting that the clerks in the elections office do the counting.
“We always stay at least one step removed from the process because if there’s a problem with the filing or the counting, it falls on us to decide,” Howe said.
Still, perception is an issue, according to Legislator Kay Breed (R-Cortlandville).
“I don’t think it’s proper to even expose the remote possibility that something could happen … the voters need to know that everything is being done on the level,” Breed said.
Where perception issues arise most often, according to Foster, is during extremely close elections.
“If the election is close, the losing party is inevitably not going to have a high level of trust in the outcome,” Foster said. “If you have partisan people in there, even if they’re representing both parties, it becomes easier and easier to question the validity.”
That’s politics
When nominating petitions for the coming elections were finalized in mid-July, Breed said she was startled by the number of uncontested races, including 11 Legislature seats and all countywide races except county treasurer.
Breed stopped short of accusing Cortland County’s political parties of making deals to leave certain seats on both sides unchallenged, but said that having party chairmen in the elections’ office affords further opportunities for political maneuvering between the parties.
“I know most of the work over there is done by the clerks, but when it comes to those decisions that are going to affect the election, (the election commissioners) are making them,” Breed said. “Again, it’s the potential to make deals that’s the problem.”
Howe and Wood vehemently rejected the notion that deals are made between the parties, particularly in the election office.
“That’s crazy,” Wood said. “We have a moral obligation as commissioners to do what’s right as far as election law goes.”
Daighlian said that he had never heard of any “collusion” between commissioners in New York state, however he acknowledged the potential exists that politics could infiltrate the election office under the current system.
For instance, he said, a challenger to an incumbent could potentially face an especial uphill climb with party leadership serving as commissioners.
“Does it occasionally prevent some upstarts who want to challenge the party leadership? Yeah it probably could, but that’s more because of the two-party system than because (both commissioners are) party chairs,” Daighlian said.
“Basically, if you do have a challenger like that, they just have to be extra careful on their petition to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ and they’ll be fine.”
Breed and Danny Ross (R-Cortlandville) also expressed concerns that appointing party chairmen as election commissioners created a conflict of interest for legislators who may feel beholden to their chairmen.
“I’m most worried that you have a conflict where your incumbents are having to vote them into the job, then go along with what the election commissioners say all year long because at the end of the year they’ve got to go to the party chair and the party to help fund their campaign,” Ross said.
Howe and Wood both said they don’t control the purse strings in their respective parties, that that responsibility falls on the parties’ executive committees.
“It’s ultimately the committee that decides where the money’s going to go,” Howe said. “I think of my main job as chairman as finding good people to run, representing the party to get Republicans elected to public office.”
Legislator Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward), who also serves as Treasurer for the Democratic Committee, said she didn’t see the funding side of the chairman job as an issue.
“First of all, there’s usually so little of it, and ultimately it’s the executive committee as a whole that strategizes and figures out the best way to put the money to use for the entire party,” Tytler said. “I think Bob Howe has done a great job for years of keeping party business out of the election office, and I think Bill does too.”
Tytler said that in the past, the election commissioner appointment has been seen within the party as a reward for a chairman’s or another committee member’s dedication.
“The chairman doesn’t get paid, but puts in a lot of work, so this was a way to reward that work for the party,” Tytler said.
Wood said his long involvement with politics made him better equipped to be chairman.
“I’ve been involved in politics in this area since 1981 and honestly I think I’m the best person for the job, because I’ve seen the process in action from all angles,” Wood said.
Looking forward
After the Republican Caucus approved Howe’s reappointment, Breed, Ross and Newell Willcox (R-Homer) regretted that their effort to keep Howe from holding both positions — and ideally, send a message to Democrats — had fallen short.
“I’m disappointed for two reasons, one, because it was the right thing to do, and two, because hopefully it would have jarred the Democrats to look at doing the same thing with their man,” Willcox said. “I’ve known Bob Howe all my life, but there’s no way he can control the purse strings of the party I belong to and also be election commissioner without there being a conflict of interest.”
Tytler, noting that previous commissioners also have been party chairmen, said she believed the recent clamor about conflict of interest had more to do with the commissioners’ personally than with philosophy.
“My feeling is that, right now it’s something that is allowable and common in the state, so I’m comfortable sticking with that,” Tytler said. “When I voted in favor of Bob Howe, I felt that he was the choice of their party, and I don’t think the Legislature should turn that down.”
Brown, who is not seeking re-election this year, said she could not foresee at this point how legislators would react when Wood is up for reappointment next year.
“That’s going to be up to the caucuses in the future to decide for themselves,” Brown said.
Foster said he supports an effort to create an independent election monitoring system in states and nationally, but that America’s current political system is still firmly entrenched.
“The major trend all over the world has been to establish independent election commissions that are nonpartisan and professional,” Foster said, adding that, while it might be a little extreme, Canada does not allow its election commissioners to vote. “The bottom line is, whoever is running our elections needs to be above politics.”
On the other hand though, politics have kept the system fair for years, Wood said.
“We have one of the best systems in the country in New York because we have both parties involved,” Wood said. “That way, Bob checks me and I check him, and it’s going to take both of us together to make a decision.”



Attorney general investigation shows —

Student lender paid $119,000 to Cortland alumni association

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Recent developments in an investigation by the state attorney general have revealed that the SUNY Cortland Alumni Association has been receiving payments from one of the nation’s top student loan consolidators and holder of federal loans.
The Cortland Alumni Association has received $119,000 in the past two years from Nelnet, a Nebraska-based company that provides student loan products and services to college students, in exchange for loan and consolidation referrals, according to the investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Pete Koryzno, director of public relations for SUNY Cortland, confirmed that the alumni association had a contract with Nelnet and received $119,000 since 2005.
Koryzno said the money was used for alumni programming, including the student alumni association, alumni reunion weekend and various chapter programs.
“We wanted to put out a product for our graduates that was guaranteed to be accurate and at a cost defined by federal government regulations,” said Doug DeRancy, executive director of the Cortland Alumni Association. “Nelnet did that in every instance during the course of our two-year contract.”
Nelnet would not disclose the details of its agreement with the Cortland Alumni Association.
“All agreements are confidential because they are different from school to school,” said Eric Solomon, media relations manager for Nelnet. “Some of our contracts with alumni associations are still going on and will be terminated.”
The contract with the Cortland Alumni Association was terminated two weeks ago, Koryzno said.
The contract allowed Nelnet access to recent graduates’ addresses, but no telephone numbers were given out. Cortland also advertised Nelnet in its alumni newspaper.
Additionally, Nelnet gave the alumni association money for students who chose Nelnet as their consolidator, Koryzno said.
Cuomo’s investigation into the student loan industry determined Cortland was one of approximately 120 colleges and alumni associations that had agreements with Nelnet.
Alumni associations recommended Nelnet loans because they were being paid to do so, not because the loans offered the best terms to students and alumni, according to the investigation.
Cuomo’s investigation already has resulted in agreements with 11 other student loan companies, including Citibank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
On Tuesday, Cuomo announced a settlement with Nelnet, requiring the company to pay $2 million toward a fund dedicated to educating college bound students about their loan options.
Nelnet also has agreed to terminate all contracts with alumni associations.
Nelnet responded to the settlement by stating that it has fully cooperated with Cuomo’s inquiry and has agreed to abide by his College Code of Conduct.
The attorney general’s College Code of Conduct prohibits revenue sharing from lenders to schools, includes disclosure standards and restrictions on how lenders are chosen for school “preferred lender” lists, and bans gifts or trips to the university employees from lenders.
The Code of Conduct also prohibits lenders from staffing or paying for the staffing of any component of the university financial aid offices and outlines guidelines for other aspects of the lender-university relationship.
Cuomo’s code has become part of New York state law as the Student Lending Accountability, Transparency, and Enforcement (SLATE) Act of 2007.
Solomon said that he could not comment any further and referred to the news release issued by Nelnet on Tuesday.
“Although Nelnet strongly believes that the outsourcing and alumni consolidation services are valuable services for our customers, proposed federal regulations and legislation also call for the elimination of these programs,” Nelnet said in the news release.
Cuomo could not be reached for comment.


County has choice on Medicaid cost

Staff Reporter

The county Legislature needs to make a significant long-term decision by Sept. 30: either continue to pay into Medicaid out of its budget or allow the state to take a set portion of local sales tax revenue to offset Medicaid costs.
County Administrator Scott Schrader said Thursday that he would recommend the county continue to pay Medicaid costs based on a recent state imposed Medicaid cap, essentially agreeing with a report released Tuesday by the office of state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
The comptroller’s report says that most counties in the state, unless they project future sales tax growth of less than 2.7 percent, would be better served financially by continuing to pay into Medicaid based on the Medicaid cap.
The cap was instituted by the state in 2005 to curtail rapidly rising Medicaid costs incurred by counties.
Cost increases are capped at 3 percent per year for counties, and any additional rise in cost is absorbed by the state.
If it opted to surrender sales tax revenue to pay into Medicaid, the county would be agreeing to give a set percentage of its annual revenue based on its current Medicaid payments, Schrader said.
He estimated the county would give up roughly 34 percent of its sales tax revenue. The county pays about $8 million into Medicaid and brings in about $23 million in sales tax revenue.
That percentage would then be locked in, Schrader said, meaning that if revenues were to climb, the county would pay an increased amount.
“The question is, is the sales tax revenue going to grow more than the cap amount?” Schrader said.
DiNapoli’s report found that seven counties, not including Cortland, projected sales tax growth of less than 2.7 percent, and stated that only those counties could potentially benefit from opting out of the Medicaid cap program.
Schrader said that currently sales tax growth in Cortland County likely won’t outpace the annual 3 percent Medicaid increase; however, he expected revenues to ultimately grow more rapidly than Medicaid costs.
“I believe that in the long term, sales tax receipts will increase faster than the cap … it makes more fiscal sense long term to stay with the cap,” Schrader said.
The other negative to sending sales tax revenues to pay for Medicaid is that the payment would occur before the county distributed revenues to area municipalities, meaning municipal budgets would lose a significant amount of income, Schrader said.
“If we do it that way, every municipality is going to feel a loss,” he said. “It would take $8 million out of our annual budget, so it would mean a significant reduction in the cost of county government, but that would just be politics, it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the whole county.”
The issue will go before the Human Services Committee, which oversees Medicaid, and the Budget and Finance Committee this month, Schrader said.