Running the New York state Assembly is a really tough job. Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx manages a chamber of 150 members representing localities and competing interests from across the state. The few people who can truly understand such responsibility include state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester, past and present leaders of the other 97 legislative chambers across the country and obviously any cat wranglers out there. So it only makes sense that Heastie needs help keeping things from running astray.
Luckily, he has lots of help. Elected deputies like Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo manage the legislative process. Top staffers maintain order in his office. Committee secretaries make sure that institutional knowledge does not get lost as lawmakers come and go. Yet, a transparency-loving guy like Heastie has gone without the help he needs when it comes to implementing the 2016 recommendations he commissioned to make Assembly proceedings more transparent to the public.
The recommendations included recording and posting videos of committee meetings online, which obviously he is eager to get done. “I'm not sure,” Heastie said in an interview when asked why that has not happened after five years. “I'd have to look into that.” A spokesperson added that logistics are a challenge, but did not respond to a later request for comment for details. It is a busy time as the June 10 scheduled end of the legislative session approaches, so City & State lent the speaker a helping hand by recording committee meetings this week because he totally wants the public to be able to see their elected officials in action. It was indeed a task that was harder than it looks for two reporters with free software. Here is how it went.
Committee meetings are typically held on the first or second days of each week when the Assembly reconvenes. The busiest day this week was Tuesday, which had six committee meetings compared to two on Monday and two on Wednesday. City & State used multiple computers (have you ever experienced the WiFi in the Capitol?) to record each of the six meetings on Tuesday for the following committees: Cities, Codes, Governmental Employees, Local Governments, Real Property Taxation and Rules. That last one proved to be a little tricky because it was added to the schedule with little notice. That is fair enough since the Rules Committee is charged with managing bills from other committees before they reach the Assembly floor.
That is just one day in the life of the lower chamber, but hopefully City & State has proved that Assembly committee meetings can be recorded and uploaded to the internet. There is a very real public interest in helping the public understand what happens at committee meetings after they happen. A recent kerfuffle surrounding efforts by Education Committee Chair Michael Benedetto of the Bronx to block a bill he did not like highlights all the interesting things that come to light when enterprising reporters obtain bootleg copies of proceedings. “The state Assembly has the resources and it has the blueprint that they could just borrow from the Senate,” Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said in an interview. “The public pays the money for the lawmakers to hold these proceedings. The public has a right to see them.” But do voters really know how tough it is to make that happen?
Interestingly enough City & State is not the only one who has made a point of demonstrating how digital tools enable the Assembly to be more transparent. The Assembly Judiciary Committee has already posted three audio recordings of the Zoom meetings of its ongoing impeachment investigation. Maybe committee Chair Charles Lavine of Long Island learned about that 2014 proof of concept done by good government groups Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany and NYPIRG who took matters into their own hands by leveraging smartphones to post committee meetings on a now-defunct website. “The New York State Assembly should post the committee meetings online immediately,” Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said in a statement. “There is no reason for the government to hide years of public meetings from New Yorkers. Post the meetings." The state Senate has done that with videos of committee meetings for the past decade, but what does that prove? “We can do a lot of comparisons of what we do that the Senate does and doesn't do,” Heastie said in an interview.
To be fair though to the speaker, there is a difference between posting a few meetings – and doing it day in, day out for months on end. Yet, the Assembly already devotes several staff members to the task of managing the remote proceedings it has conducted during the pandemic. Maybe someone could hit record on Zoom?
Heastie also has formidable powers as one of the most powerful people in the state. So, maybe he could find some loose change to up his digital game. Or he could opt for the free open source software Audacity; you can download it here, Mr. Speaker.
Peanut gallery suggestions might not do it when it comes to IT matters in one of the most important institutions in the Empire State. If Heastie needs some real pro advice on making good on that “immediate action” he promised in 2016, he could hit up fellow Assembly speakers from dozens of other states that have mastered the mid-2000s art of posting videos on a website.
Asked whether a website called “YouTube,” which allows users from around the world to post videos online for free might be the answer, the speaker said the idea will be considered. “Let me speak to the operations team and we'll get back to you,” Heastie said.
So just be patient everyone! One Kennedy-esque moonshot took seven years to complete. The Assembly is only five years into an ongoing process. So in a way, Heastie still has two years to fulfill his 2016 vow and show how the seemingly impossible can become a reality. Openness in government is at stake and thankfully the speaker is obviously on. the. case.
Rebecca C. Lewis contributed reporting.