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Active Participation In State Government A Privilege, Not A Right, According To Kathy Hochul

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Acting Governor Kathy Hochul, signed another extension of the emergency order , No. 11.1 on December 26, 2021, effective until January 22, 2022.  In her last extension order Kathy Hochul celebrated her success by proclaiming, “This commonsense legislation extends a PRIVILEGE that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process…”

Having access to our elected officials is not a privilege, it is a Constitutional Right. Along with standard provisions such as, priority lab testing, and exemptions for property assessment rolls; what this current emergency order continues to limit is our democratic process and right to participate in government. Beginning with executive order 202, signed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo in January 2020, members of our state’s Senate and Assembly were authorized to conduct official public duties remotely, resulting in the closure of the State Capitol Building in Albany, New York.

Since this less than productive mode of governing has been utilized by almost all elected officials since early 2020, issues arising from a lack of communication and access to our elected officials has become a burden. Although public hearings, meetings and special seasons have been available to view remotely, some citizens find that the process of contacting our representatives is lacking. Jason Houck, New York State Chairman for National Parents Org. has experienced the disconnect of this process for the past two years. “You send an email to a government IP, and hear nothing”. Mr. Houck, like many others rely on one to one contact and meetings with our government to lobby for law reform. Mr. Houck describes one remote “meeting” held by Senator Andrew Hevesi’s Office in November 2021, “Mr. Hevesi was sitting in his car, wearing a sweater” – the meeting was anything but official and left a sour taste in Mr. Houck’s mouth.

It’s exciting when there is a response from an email or boiler plate contact form however, some aren’t as lucky, New York Families for Tomorrow, Corp, a nonprofit aimed at Family Law reform and legal education as been operating under these restrictions for the past two years. In April of 2020, CEO, Summer Johnson attempted to meet with members of government in Albany during a rally with no success. “The Capitol building was(still is) locked with fencing surrounding the entire exterior…it looked like a horror movie”.

Since then, she has sent dozens of emails to elected officials through their government website contact forms, with very little success. “I track all my attempts through a spreadsheet, date, time and the response, there are a lot of holes in that spreadsheet, a lot of missing information” says Summer.  Other smaller nonprofits and community groups have struggled as well, without unrestricted access to our government or the regulation of mandatory responses via email, the mezzo system level of policy advocacy is shut down! Albany is not representing its citizen’s, even in-house-district reps are failing in their duties to speak with, work with and advocate for their voters. Summer Johnson recalls, “I’ve sent more than 5 emails to Senator Helming’s office over the past two years, two were for a possible job opening and the rest were to calendar a meeting. I heard nothing back” More reports from downstate signal the same issues. Email after email, call after call and no response. While the contact information is public and plentiful, confusion over district office hours and Albany office hours is another hurdle citizens of New York face. 

With the extension of Article. 7 by proxy through Hochul’s emergency order 11.1; our rights to be heard and represented are being withheld. Albany must do better when addressing the citizen’s of New York and in typical Albany fashion, many have voiced support for the the numerous extensions, “The public has the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to debate and watch the decision-making process”, Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristen Brown proclaims. However, the issue of watching and listening to open government has never been the struggle of New Yorker’s, we’ve had access to these modes of public hearings for years and continue to do so. The missing link to Ms. Brown’s opinion on remote governing is the active participation of government by the people, for the people! Yes, we can watch and listen to the “decision makers” but the people must be involved prior to the decision making, prior to the public meetings, and prior to any new Bills being passed. Who’s creating the Bills if public input is not being granted? How do the out of touch representatives in Albany speak on behalf of their voters if they’re not having open discussions with their base? These are the hard questions that aren’t being answered.

I envision a Capitol flourishing and filled with citizen’s roaming the hallways, speaking their minds, meeting with elected officials in big offices and feeling the pride and sense of patriotism that comes with being active in our democratic process, instead we are handed restriction after restriction while being further and further removed from our public officers and stripped of our rights to enter our Capitol building. Emergency order No. 11.1 will continue to restrict all New Yorkers from policy advocacy while reducing the ethical duties of our government.

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