Those countless “Vote No!” signs in the front yards around Western New York carry an important message for people heading to the polls on Nov. 7.
They represent widespread opposition — for many different reasons — to the controversial proposal on this year’s ballot, asking voters whether New York state should hold another Constitutional Convention. If you’ve kept informed about the election process, you know that New Yorkers have the right to decide on that question at least once every 20 years.
The last one was held in 1967, during Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s administration, and by all documented accounts, it was a resounding flop. Clearly, nothing was accomplished as the delegates rejected all the proposals.
There’s no question that many state residents remain disgusted with the corruption and scandals that have riddled Capitol Hill in Albany, creating an atmosphere of distrust and dysfunction. While meaningful reform is obviously needed, costly and lengthy sessions of the past were known more for their patronage and favoritism, hardly the preferred path to better government.
As for the expense — the ‘67 convention cost an estimated $48 million — adjusted for inflation the next tab would top $336 million. Delegates are usually selected by two methods: one from each of the electoral districts and 15 at-large delegates from the state. Those delegates at that convention 50 years ago were generally described as partisan political figures. Of the 186 attending those sessions, 154 held some kind of public office, representing virtually every level of elective office in the state. The list included state legislators (few, if any, were willing to address the pension issue). Also, judges, mayors, city and town officials ended up as dominating the proceedings that quickly turned to political infighting, maneuvering and legacy building. At no point was there any serious discussion about combatting corruption in government.
Based on the checkered past of the conventions, there’s scant hope that things would be much different in 2019, when the next session would probably convene, provided voters approve the ballot measure.
Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, who served more than 30 years in state and local governments, chaired the 1967 sessions. In the comprehensive report of that event, which he labeled “Patronage, Waste and Favoritism: A Dark History of Constitutional Conventions,” Kremer found through a poll that only 30 percent of district delegates even knew what a constitutional convention was before the referendum appeared on the ballot box. The failure of that convention left a bitter memory for many New Yorkers, Kremer added. As a result they rejected the idea of calling another convention in 1977 and 1997.
Since political gamemanship and gridlock — not to forget corruption — have marred the character and tone of the current Legislature, there’s little reason to believe that a process dominated by politics would ever be conducted in a non-partisan manner.
We can’t legislate morality. Our goal should be to elect officials who are capable of restoring the public trust in Albany.