FBA Discusses Common Goals with Assm. Daniel J. O'Donnell

By Ray & Kimberly Feliciano

Since FBA is about "bringing your government back to you", we were especially interested in O'Donnell's recent legislation, A10027, which reconnects people to their government by establishes a website for the purpose of informing the community about hearings and meetings of state agencies, to create a open government, one to be held accountable.

Q: Maybe there is something Fourth Branch of America can do to help in this endeavor. Our vision includes such a website, as the medium between the people and their government.

“The idea of the legislation was the technology and the people who have the capacity to do it, are already existing state employees. The idea is to create a centralized place where they can be. The problem we have found is that our constituents are often uninformed on very important decisions that are being made because the mechanism for notifying them is a 150, 200-year-old process. Putting an ad in the back of a paper that nobody reads is not really gonna reach anyone who is directly affected. We have experienced most directly with the Dormitory Authority in NYS “public hearings” in a building where you had to call in advance and give them your name to get in. What kind of public hearing is that? So this will help put it in one place, like the Assembly, but a place where all the agencies and government outreach stuff is so to find out what’s on the agendas at any of the public hearings. Unless you are about paper reading, you don’t get that.”

ny_assm_odonnel_069.jpg - 8.53 K
NY Assemblyman
Daniel J. O'Donnell

“As the years goes by, more and more people will get the information. So we need to bring government into the current age. And we need to make sure that our constituents get to know and participate. I do the best I can with my limited staff, try to stay on top of things, but the truth is, if there was one centralized place, I could have the staff in to look at it every Monday and ask them to review the agendas and find out what affects the 120,000 people I represent. So, that’s where it [the bill] came from.”

“Like much legislation I propose, it comes from personal experience. When I started my job here, there was a public hearing, and you could barely get into it. Well, what’s the use of a public hearing if nobody ever comes? You could blame the public in apathy, but the truth is, I don’t think that’s what it was. It’s lack of knowledge. So the idea was, let’s frontload the knowledge out there, and then even for the electives. Now there is no way to do that. It is to make the government more accessible to everybody—the elected officials, but most importantly, the constituents.”

Q: Do you see any possibility with an outside organization working with the government.

“...What mechanism they use I don’t really care, as long as it gets brought about. As long as my constituents are notified properly when the Dormitory Authority is taking action so they have a right to participate. At the current time they are not because the methods don’t work. So we need to fix that.”

Q: Do you believe the towns would welcome media like us announcing the town agenda?

“There is a very big difference between towns, localities, and state governments. I used to serve on the community board which is a subset of the city council in NY. We all have jobs and other lives. It’s very difficult sometimes for them [the volunteers of these agencies] to function where advance notice can be given. Sometimes those who are organized can say what the agenda is in advance. Sometimes they can’t. I used to chair the Housing Committee, which met on Tuesday and the full board met on Thursday. How could you know what resolutions are coming out of the committee on Tuesday before you do it?”

“The problem with state government is, it’s a huge monstrosity that deals with millions of dollars, and that has a huge impact on peoples lives. They don’t know, and sometimes maybe they don’t want to know. Does the MTA want to know that people know when their public hearing is? Does the Dormitory Authority actually want public input? I’m not blaming the individual MTA or Dormitory. I’m just saying, as a hypothetical, is that part of what they think their mission is.”

“I think there is a difference between localities and state. Do the people who run the MTA really want citizenry or do they actually want to decide on their own and not have meaningful citizenry? I don’t know the answer to the question. What I do know is, if you don’t mandate that they have information available online for everyone to see in advance, then they go hold a public hearing, nobody shows up, and they do what they want. Then somebody asks and they say nobody showed. So, in my opinion, therein lies the problem.”

“All state government should centralize in terms of the public hearing process, notice to the communities, and to the entire state. Then I can sit in NYC on my computer and see there’s a public hearing in Buffalo about the Erie Canal, and enables me to call somebody the next day and ask what happened. It may have an impact on my job, or my life as a New Yorker. And that is really what the initial goal is of this legislation.”

NY Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell - 41.55 K
Assemblyman O’Donnell discusses his bill (A.10027)
to create a website to inform citizens regarding
public governmental hearings, and also hears about
the FBA and The Informed Constituent from
members Ray and Kimberly Feliciano.
(Photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: Can we count on your support towards reconnecting citizens with their government?

“Let me know what I can do. I am more than happy to meet with you whenever you want, when you find any of my bills that you think are interesting. It would be interesting to talk to Richard Brotsky who has done a lot of work with the MTA and at dealing with public notice and how much information about the way the authorities run. He’s the Chair of the Corporations Committee. He’s a very knowledgeable guy. Talk to him about how the government can be more responsive to the general constituent, particularly as it relates to authorities who have direct connection with their government. We’ll continue to look at it [The Informed Constituent]. Apparently, Betsy reads it and hangs up the cartoon she likes, so I imagine she’ll continue to do that.”

Q: TIC has twice reported on the issue of Gay Marriage. You and your partner, together for 23 years, are suing the state. What is the status on that?

“They are suing the state on the grounds that the due process protection clauses in the NYS Constitution require NYS to give out its licenses, but NYS is depriving my partner and I of getting one. That license brings rights and obligations with it, but we are being deprived of it, so it’s a violation of the Constitution.”

Q: NY State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer recently suggested the ban could be fought.

“I think we’re going to win. There’s no rational basis for the state to deprive me of a license. If they had a law that said gays can’t have driver’s licenses or hunting licenses, they wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s not a religious institution. It’s a state license, so there’s no basis to deprive them of a state license.”

Q: Would ‘Civil Unions’ basically be like ‘Separate is not equal’ to you?

“Right. There has to be equality. Deborah Glick has a bill that would eliminate marriage and have only civil unions, for everybody—gay and straight. Not to mention places like France—They’re 20-30 years ahead of us, where most people in France are not ‘married’. They have a civil union. The civil government gives them a certificate that says they are a couple, not married because they didn’t go to church and do that thing. The reality is that there are many options as long as the options are ‘treat me the same as my heterosexual siblings and constituents’. Anything that is less than what my neighbors or you or other people get is not acceptable. So currently the only choice, therefore, is marriage.”

Q: What about recognition by other states?

“I don’t think there’s any issue there. That’s up to the individual states. Although, I think with the Full Faith and Credit Clause the Constitution requires them to do it. I think the Defense of Marriage Act on a federal basis is unconstitutional. But, that’s what the courts will have to decide. That’s one of the problems with civil unions. If you were to give civil unions to everybody, you have no way to know whether or not the other states would give full faith and credit to the civil unions. It’s not a marriage license… I’d say it will take a couple of years to get through the court of appeals.”