The Assembly members who have been meeting over the summer to craft a reform proposal for that secretive and top-heavy body are wrapping up the first part of their work, which, incredibly enough, has been conducted in secret. (It's Albany.)
The committee was formed in the rough days after May's coup attempt against Speaker Sheldon Silver. Though Silver survived the insurrection with votes to spare, he was made painfully aware of the deep discontent with his autocratic leadership style.
Wisely, he not only backed formation of the reform committee, but named to it some of the people who backed Michael Bragman's effort to topple him, among them Sam Hoyt of Buffalo and Sandra Galef of Westchester County, a credible and longtime proponent of reform.
But now it's time for results. Galef says the committee's proposals should be ready for review by the rest of the Assembly this month. She hopes a final vote endorsing them will be held before the Assembly selects its speaker in December.
This has not been a perfect process. For one, it includes only Democrats, a bad sign, given that one of the most urgently needed reforms is to give a voice to the Assembly's minority party members. And, as we have already observed, the work was conducted behind closed doors, a peculiar thing, since one of the other problems with the Assembly is the leadership's devotion to secrecy.
Galef recognizes the contradiction, but believes closed meetings were necessary to allow members to speak freely. It's a reasonable explanation, but it only adds to the importance to produce results. A secret process that produces nothing of significance will be a sign that nothing has changed.
But real change is needed. Important legislation needs to be debated openly. There needs to be an honest commitment to conference committees that hammer out compromises on legislation passed by the Assembly and Senate. Minority party members need to be empowered. And the woeful, embarrassing budget process needs to overhauled, with an emphasis on giving influence to the rank-and-file and to meeting the budget deadline.
Of course, some of this requires action by the Senate as well. Conference committees require both chambers, for example. In fact, while the Assembly's record on hewing to democratic principles is appalling, the Senate's is only marginally better. Will it take a swing at Majority Leader Joseph Bruno's head to get him to move?
In the Assembly, at least, this is the time to act. The strike against Silver broke the Assembly's institutional resistance to reform, and it is crucial to move before it has a chance to reassert itself. But here's a hint: If, indeed, it was necessary to craft these proposals in secret, it is essential to debate them in public. It won't do to express a new devotion to openness in a vote held after no discussion, in the dead of night.