The "Death Of Democracy," Right Here In Hempstead Town
From a presentation to the NYS Commission on Local Government Competitiveness and Efficiency, Hofstra University, July 25, 2007:Good morning, my name is Michael Uhl and I have titled my paper, Undermine Democracy and Government’s Efficiency and Competitiveness Will Follow.
I would like to thank Governor Spitzer for initiating this Commission, which empowers the citizens of New York to come together to lead this great State into a new age of efficient, competitive government.
I served 3 years as a water commissioner for a special district in Nassau County, New York from 2001 to 2003. The board I served on had three commissioners and the hamlet of West Hempstead has a total of six water commissioners. By design all of them serve the same political party.
The idea that local government is more democratic because it is closer to the people sounds like it should be true but in the case of the special district system in the Town of Hempstead it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here the system has been intentionally used to undermine our local democracy in a quiet and insidious way.
The original political leaders decided to trade our public jobs for forced political loyalties throughout the town. This practice has created an insurmountable advantage over any opposing party or individual seeking to serve. Controlling this practice over the last 80+ years has created what has existed to this day, an ironclad one party rule.
Being one of the only public servants to break into this secluded fiefdom, while not serving any political party, I have much to offer this commission. For the record I’m registered blank.
The political bosses once required that all workers they gave our jobs to must kick back 1% of their salaries, for life, to finance one (party) rule. Now they require 100% of their votes, their service to the party and their democratic soul for life. This is nothing short of democracy held hostage, and it must end.
During my experience I found the energy of my fellow commissioners toward bettering the water district was close to nonexistent, but were able to fight vigorously to squash my creative energy to improve the district. I am very proud and pleased to say they failed miserably.
Recently a Newsday reporter told me they wanted to interview me on this subject because I was one of the only commissioners they had investigated on this subject that opposed his board.
Now I would like to share 5 of my most alarming personal experiences as commissioner, which proves change is needed, and we the people can do it and must do more together.
1. Pertaining to transparency and community contact, I had to initiate a newsletter, obtain the first commissioner’s computer, start a website, begin a water education program, and put a telephone on the previously bare commissioner’s desk.
2. Pertaining to infrastructure, I had to initiate work on a new water tower that the district’s engineers stated 8 years prior needed replacement and at that time raised a multi-project bond to build it but didn’t. Meanwhile, when I arrived there was one million dollars in the bank.
3. Pertaining to accountability, I had to request the commissioners to summarize or bullet the work they accomplished for the district every day they signed in and got paid. They refused. I bulleted my work.
4. Pertaining to public health and property values, I worked for a year to make the case to my board for being proactive by tracking toxic spills in relationship to their location, ground water flow and the districts well field. If a toxic plume got close to the public well a monitoring well would detect it and we could remediate it before it hit the public supply. This would protect the public’s confidence, public health and property values.
There’s a limit to how many times your town’s name can be on the front page for shutting down the water supply due to contamination before it negatively effects property values. After the board again claimed “it doesn’t make sense to do anything until a contaminant shows up in the water supply,” I had to threaten the commissioners with going to Newsday before I got them to agree.
We obtained data on spills in places that could pose a risk to the water supply in the future. Once my term was completed, the board stopped the monitoring and three years later the West Hempstead Water District was on the front page of Newsday for having to tell the people they could not drink, bathe or use their water for any reason due to MTBE contamination. The very same chemical we were tracking.
The board’s quote that appeared in Newsday on July 22, 2006 was the same unsound logic given to me “If it doesn't show up in your water, there's no sense in doing anything about it.”
5. Pertaining to maintaining one party rule through ill will hiring practices. I had to vote against my board when a board member wanted to hire his daughter. I asked if we were interviewing anyone else besides his daughter for the job. He said no. I voted against the hire and lost the vote 2 to 1.
To my great surprise, at the next board meeting I was told his daughter's name was pulled and no one else was being hired. A year later this same story unfolded exactly to the detail of no one being hired. Why did 1 beat 2 twice? The threat of exposure, which I only had to use once, during the toxic tracking issue. The reason someone else wasn’t hired is because new personnel wasn’t needed, and 75+% of the entire staff are immediate family members of a commissioner.
The first month I was off the board, and the new party guy was in there, they hired the daughter, and for good measure the commissioners bought a vehicle for themselves.
This form of democracy fears change and new ways to do business. It fears transparency, oversight, standardization, result measurement and exposure. It has led to the highest taxes, reduced services, and Long Islanders getting kicked off the island like on the TV show Survivor.
When campaigning, few residents knew they had a Water Commissioner, or for that matter a total of six in the hamlet. The more part-time commissioners and supervisors that receive a salary for non-documented work, health insurance for themselves and their families, bi-monthly dinners, yearly trips, and guaranteed jobs for family and party members for life, the stronger and tighter the hold on our democracy becomes.
The Town of Hempstead may have shaped one (party) rule into an art form, but we know it is going on in many different ways, to different degrees, in the many different places where voter turnout is low and chronic incumbency is high.
So the big question is, how do we free our democracy so efficient and competitive government can follow?
The most effective means for achieving the Commission’s goals is to reduce or replace the commissioners and supervisors with a central professional management group headed by a county czar in each discipline reporting upwards. Also, developing specific standards to hold our officials accountable for their duties by measuring their results.
Result measurement will legitimize the effort of creating efficient and competitive government in the eyes of the people currently not participating in the process, the 70+% silent majority. Once they see measured results they will begin to believe things are getting done and they will start to return to the polls.
Unlike religion, in government seeing is believing. Americans are can-do people by nature and they respond when good things get done.
Before major restructuring begins, the state must require commissioners and supervisors to document their work accomplished per day they sign in to get paid. They must require commissioners to document the interview and hiring process and send it up to the state or county for review.
At your first hearing, one knowledgeable presenter said with conviction to accomplish this commission’s goals the Governor and Legislature will have to serve one term.
Another was a Mayor serving out a 26-year term who said now that I’m in my last year I can speak candidly about abolishing the whole layer of town government in Nassau County without the fear of not getting re-elected.
Once we shore up our democracy the rest will follow. The new public servant must self impose term limits and measure results so that they will be able to lead without becoming part of the problem or wasting time and energy fearing reelection. The new voters will come to the polls once they see the differences and the rest will follow.
Now that’s a big bold idea that’s not so new when we remember President George Washington’s lesson on how critical it is for the true public servant to voluntarily step down.
I consider myself a good judge of character, and the reason I am inspired to participate with this commission is because I believe in Eliot Spitzer. Our Governor has what It takes to move this New York size logjam down stream. You can see the determination in his face and hear it in his words and feel it in his actions.
Now it’s up to all of us to back him up and raise the political will, to help pull him through the tight entanglement of the status quo, for the good of everyone, including the ones squeezing the tightest.
Thank you for your time and like-minded intent.
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Michael Uhl is a resident of West Hempstead. He is the Democratic candidate for Nassau County Legislature in the 8th Legislative District.