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Private Talks on Public Funding

Doors at the Capitol were closed Tuesday for an “open” hearing on campaign-finance reform

by Erin Pihlaja on May 8, 2013

 

Not invited: Protestors at the Capitol called a public hearing a "sham," because the general public was denied access. Photo by Erin Pihlaja

The sign outside of Room 124 at the state Capitol may have read, “New York State Public Hearing,” but to the many people, including members of the media, who were refused entry to the proceedings, the message was clear: You are not welcome.

Protestors and concerned citizens congested the hallways leading to the room and chanted, “Let the people in!” While their voices penetrated the chamber and could be heard faintly on the live-cast of the hearing, their cries were to no avail. They even appeared at one of the room’s open windows and repeated their cry in a mock stage-whisper as they chucked money at senators to imply that they could buy some influence—an idea that didn’t seem too far removed from the real bribery scandals that have rocked New York state lawmakers in recent weeks.

The same decorative placard identifying the “public” event stated that the hearing was “to examine abuses within New York City’s taxpayer funded political campaign system and the implications for state taxpayers if the system were to be expanded statewide.” Many protestors claimed the wording betrayed a slanted position that negatively colored the idea of publicly funded elections, instead of promoting a discussion about statewide reform and fair elections to take the “money out of politics.”

Locked doors and barred windows didn’t stop the crowd of protestors, affiliated with groups such as Occupy Albany, MoveOn.org, Common Cause, and the Brennan Center for Justice, from getting their point across. GOP Sen. John DeFrancisco acknowledged that “if [the public] wanted to see this, there’s plenty of public access to it through the media and through the live broadcast,” although he failed to note the power of social media to connect those outside to the proceedings within.

As someone in the Capitol hallway read from a Twitter feed that the chants were creating a “disruption” inside the chamber, the group got even louder. In between the stomping, clapping, and shouting, many of the good-government groups who had asked to testify at the hearing but were either, as they said, ignored or denied, spoke to the exiled crowd.

“We’re here today to tell them that we will not take no as an answer,” said Jessica Wisneski of Citizen Action, “and we demand the Senate coalition government, who said they’d get campaign finance reform done, fulfill their promise to New Yorkers and stop the onslaught of corporate campaign cash that is currently filling their campaign coffers and controlling public policy that comes out of this building. We want fair elections and we want it now.”

Betty Head, the Capital Region organizer for MoveOn.org said, “It’s a secret public hearing, obviously, because the doors are closed to us. We would like them to be open to us, the public, and let the public in. The question is, if they are investigating or so-called investigating the system of the New York city campaign finance law that’s in place and has been in place for several years, why would they not want us to be present for that hearing? That begs the question, what are they doing behind closed doors? I think this really points to the big problem in state government today—so much secrecy.”

Democratic Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk questioned why people were being denied access when there were empty seats in the room, a fact verified by many media accounts from inside the chamber. “I’m disturbed the public can’t be here,” she said.

After the hearing, a complaint was filed by seven good-government groups with the New York State Committee on Open Government. The groups accused the Senate Elections Committee of violating the state’s Open Meetings Law.