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Listen! Hear that? It is the wailing and gnashing teeth of government


You can climb a mountain, you can swim the sea; You can jump into the fire, but you'll never be free

FEB. 17, 2012: Here is a list of the five worst-run governments in the north country:

Carthage School District, City of Ogdensburg, Town of Cape Vincent, Village of Potsdam, Village of Gouverneur.

On second thought, the five worst-run governments are actually:

Massena School District, St. Lawrence County, Town of Hounsfield, General Brown School District, Town of Lyme.

Of course, a case could also be made for:

Town of Potsdam, City of Watertown, Town of Hammond, Morristown School District, Town of Henderson.

Then again, maybe we should just consider the five worst-run governments on YOUR list.

There are only two kinds of governments in the north country: Those routinely covered by the Watertown Daily Times and those given passing coverage due to their small size and/or geographic isolation. Officials at governments routinely covered by the Times might tell you that the major problem in their lives — loss of citizen respect — would go away if Times reporters would go away as well.

But covered or uncovered, most of our governments have plenty of critics, whose criticism is occasionally fueled by rumors and innuendos. A government might not consider media coverage its best friend, but it is certainly a better friend than speculation.

Is the north country really full of gawd-awful governments? Are acrimony and chaos simply the new normal?

Each year there are more state comptroller’s office reports outlining inefficiency as local governments are finding it harder to hire competent clerks and treasurers who can keep up with ever more stringent accounting regulations. And the sidelight to all this is more small government embezzlement cases each year.

Several NNY school districts now have board meetings that are standing room only with the public in attendance to oppose the direction being taken by board members — the same friends and neighbors the public itself put in office in the first place.

Now add those towns where wind turbines are being proposed. The result is this sobering trend: more and more public officials are telling Times reporters they feel “threatened” by the way in which citizens confront them with complaints.

It’s easy to get the impression that chaos reigns. Recently, the city councils of Ogdensburg and Watertown on the same day voted to part ways with their managers, although they took vastly different routes to reach the same destination.

Last summer in Ogdensburg with an election just months away, some council members began calling for the head of Manager Art Sciorra, even though an investigation to determine what, if anything, Sciorra had done improperly/incorrectly/illegally wasn’t complete. Sciorra is now gone, but not before officials spent months in a circular firing squad attacking the ethics of each other.

As the dust settled, even Ogdensburg officials looked back at their performance this past year and know that as a group they had embarrassed themselves.

But say what you will about Ogdensburg, at least its citizens had the opportunity to express themselves at public meetings and at the ballot box regarding the performance of their manager.

In Watertown, three city council members went the other direction in deciding to give the boot to Manager Mary Corriveau. All three were on the ballot in November, but none of them announced that their first agenda item of 2012 would be to dump Corriveau. Instead, they waited until after the election and then took their blitzkrieg action behind closed doors so that — voila! — no campaign promises were broken and no public input had to be tolerated beforehand.

(Even the greatest sluggers occasionally strike out. Likewise, Corriveau has had her share of swings and misses over the years. But Corriveau is not an incompetent administrator whose continued presence was jeopardizing the city’s future. The vote of the three council members not to renew the contract of an employee with 26 years working for the city came across as clumsy and mean-spirited.)

It would be nice to think that the last year is an aberration rather that a trend. But with state and federal dollars shrinking, more acrimony is on the way. From Congress to state capitols to county governments, we have created layers of governments we can no longer afford, which means government is now turning on itself.

And all that is left is the shouting.

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