Just when you think an administration cannot get any worse, it does.
After the devastating report by State Inspector General Joseph Fisch on the politics of the Aqueduct racino, we awaited the reaction of the scandal-scarred Paterson regime.
It came unexpectedly last night in the sudden dismissal of Pete Grannis, Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, while he was receiving an award from the New York Water Environment Association, a nonprofit educational group founded in 1929 by professionals in the field of water quality.
The firing of the commissioner, coming 11 days before a statewide election, is so ridiculous that it is difficult to comprehend. It was ostensibly based on the leaking of a memo outlining the consequences of budget cuts proposed for DEC. The memo was innocuous, a standard warning by an agency head of the impact of the loss of hundreds of employees. It was followed by a cordial meeting with the budget director to see how the cuts could be made with minimal disruption of services. That is why the sequence of emails culminating in his discharge came as a surprise.
Why is it that Pete Grannis enjoys such a good reputation, while Paterson's staff is viewed as irrelevant and inconsequential? It is because Grannis has done constructive work over the years to protect the environment, which people appreciate, while the achievements of the others, if they exist, are unknown.
It is not uncommon for outstanding commissioners to be harassed and belittled by executive staff. I endured those slings for years, but Mayor Giuliani was always supportive when disputed matters came to his personal attention. Apparently Governor Paterson is so dependent on those around him that he is unable to protect his own commissioners, even if he has known and been friendly with them for over twenty-five years.
I recall a similar situation about 12 years ago. First Deputy Mayor Peter Powers told the assembled Giuliani commissioners that the budget had to be reduced for almost all agencies. He patiently said that some agencies might feel in good faith that their work would be seriously impaired, that they would be unable to provide the services on which people had become dependent, that the social fabric would be strained, etc. Powers said he could understand how commissioners could feel that way, and if so, he added, "Let's part friends." Those words became Rule 15.
An unsigned, undated memo, revealing no secrets and simply seeking to avoid budget cuts, is nothing to complain about that seriously. You cut the budget if you must, but you do not fire a competent commissioner for explaining the consequences of reductions. One cannot prove who leaked the memo, but it really doesn't matter because there was nothing in it that could not be said in public.
If Grannis were insubordinate and a poor administrator, as is now claimed, why did it take Paterson until ten weeks before he leaves office to fire him? This is the politics of a banana republic, actions taken out of spite rather than reason. If you want to punish Grannis, cut his budget a little more than you would have if he had been on board with the cuts.
One theory is that this action was taken by a failed governor, through a henchman, out of resentment at the public esteem and popularity of a commissioner who had served 32 years in the Assembly and four years in the cabinet. Another theory is that Larry Schwartz, who holds the title of Secretary to the Governor, was responsible for the action, with Paterson either misled or too weak to prevent it.
It has been suggested that the real reason for the dismissal is the handling of the Marcellus shale controversy. Schwartz is a strong supporter of hydrofracking, a process for extracting natural gas by shooting water and chemicals to break rocks.
He has pestered Grannis for hasty approval of the project, although a substantive environmental impact statement has yet to be prepared.
Whatever reservations observers may have had with Grannis' performance are dwarfed by resentment of his dismissal, apparently over a trifle, but possibly over Grannis' desire to protect the countryside and watershed from pollution.
In an administration not known for integrity, with a governor facing one investigation after another, all for relatively small matters until the Aqueduct racino blew up in his face, the ouster of a popular commissioner, a few days before the election of a new governor, is unprecedented, even for the most dysfunctional state government in the nation.
We predict that Pete Grannis' reputation will be enhanced by his dismissal, as well as his chance of being retained by Governor-to-be Cuomo. The stain of his participation in the ill-fated Spitzer and Paterson administrations has been alleviated to some extent by his peremptory dismissal.
This is not to say that we agree with everything Commissioner Grannis has said or done in four years. His agency has been criticized for obduracy and for not reining in environmental zealots. (There are such people, even for good causes.) It is, however, valuable when commissioners support the goals of their agencies, and are willing to fight to achieve them in the face of obstacles thrown up by those who would imperil the planet for personal profit.
To dismiss an unquestionably honest, highly regarded environmentalist who has devoted his professional life to public service is a new low for the Paterson-Schwartz administration. Not allowing the Commissioner even to see the Governor is a cowardly flight from responsibility. Both the Governor and Schwartz should be ashamed of themselves, if they are capable of such a feeling.
It is sad to see an administration that began in hope dissolve in scandal. Now it has happened for the second time in four years.
Seventy-one days remain for this troubled executive chamber. They cannot pass soon enough.