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Opening Government

Gov. Andrew Cuomo opens once-guarded sections of the Capitol to the public

by Jason Chura on January 26, 2011

For some, the Capitol Building has become a grim metaphor for the current condition of the state’s government. Though for the past decade the edifice has been in various stages of renovation, both within and without, scaffolding and construction equipment have served as constant reminders of the building’s age and deteriorated condition. Meanwhile, security gates and barricades at high-traffic entrances erected post-9/11 gave a visit to the building all of the charm of an Eastern European border crossing circa 1960.

It created an atmosphere which was foreboding,” said assemblyman john mceneny (d, albany). “people felt that they were suspect; not welcomed in their own capitol.” In his first official act as governor, gov. Andrew cuomo took a symbolic step toward healing the perceived divide between the government and the public by ordering that the 29 jersey barriers on state street be removed for tour bus’ sake in an effort to invite people back into what he has called “the people’s meeting place.” The act, announced during his inaugural address, follows cuomo’s campaign agenda to empower the public and pursue openness and transparency in government.

It’s very important philosophically that people are physically at ease in the building that they own, with the people whose salaries they pay,” said mceneny. “i think it’s an egalitarian level of security that people have. They feel ownership for their building rather than feel like they’re intruders.”

Cuomo also ordered that the south side of the second floor, also known as “the governor’s floor” be opened to the public. Originally closed by gov. George pataki 16 years ago, this area contains the governor’s office and the executive chamber, as well as the art collection within the hall of governors. This public collection of portraits by world-class artists, such as thomas cole, contains paintings of nearly all that served in the office, including u.s. presidents martin van buren, grover cleveland, and theodore and franklin delano roosevelt as well as u.s. vice presidents george clinton and nelson rockefeller.

Now, a lone state trooper is stationed at a desk in the hallway; the only visible security measure seen from gov. Clinton’s portrait at one end of the gallery to gov. Pataki’s portrait at the other.
It’s a great metaphor for the fact that we’re going to care more about the people who should be the most powerful voices in this democracy: the taxpayers,” said assemblyman james tedisco (r, ny-110). “it’s a good symbolic first step for empowering the people who we represent.”
According to mceneny, the new governor also seeks to ensure that the four-phase capitol restoration effort that began in 2000 continues to completion, and in the most cost effective way possible.

The project, now in phase four, has already restored the assembly chamber and the skylight over the great western staircase and has repaired the building’s badly deteriorated ceiling. By the project’s projected completion in 2014, the skylight over the senate and assembly staircases should also be restored.

I think gov. Cuomo has a real sense of the capitol as a symbol of the state of new york,” said mceneny. “a shabby, lackluster capitol could indicate that your best years are behind you. One that’s vibrant and valued and taken care of sends the exact opposite message.”
Other executive orders signed by the governor this month have included establishing teams to evaluate government programs and spending as well as an order requiring ethics training for all new york state officials.

If we want to go beyond the symbolic effort of empowering people and making them the most important voices, we’ll follow through with [cuomo’s] agenda,” said tedisco. “that is downsizing, reducing the size and cost of state government, and not passing unfunded mandates.” Tedisco also expressed the importance of spending caps, as well as property tax and ethics reform.

Much like the renovation to the physical capitol, cuomo’s mission to rebuild government and restore the public trust will be a work in progress for at least the early part of his administration. The first real test of these ideals will come with the governor’s budget proposal, due to be released next week on feb. 1.

Though supportive of cuomo’s early initiatives, tedisco was quick to point out that it is still too early in the administration to determine if the governor would be true to his promises.

“the merit and the quality of the real openness and transparency; the ability to take tough questions, answer tough questions, and deal with difficult situations is going to come a little bit later,” said tedisco. “we’ll be better able to judge in six months or so . . . Or a year. The devil’s in the details. We just need to see how he reacts when his feet are put to the fire.”