How David Gantt Sent Bus Cameras to Defeat in Albany

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With last week’s bus camera vote in Albany inspiring calls for Mayor Bloomberg to engage in civil disobedience, Streetsblog has been taking a closer look at how Assembly transportation committee chairman David Gantt was able to bring down a bill that reportedly enjoyed majority support among his members and won approval in the New York City Council by a 40 to 7 vote.

Recall that the bill, critical to the success of the city’s Bus Rapid Transit plans, was scheduled by Gantt for a motion to hold, meaning that a "Yes" vote would table the bill. In the official roll call, six co-sponsors of the bill were recorded as having voted "Yes," essentially killing legislation they had earlier endorsed. This drew the attention of the Times, which questioned whether Gantt had influenced the votes of committee members.

While Gantt told the Times he doesn’t go around "breaking people’s arms," multiple sources familiar with the vote told Streetsblog that some co-sponsors sided against bus cameras in order to preserve
their relationship with the chair.

The rest of the story indicates why a committee member would want to stay in good standing with Gantt.

The vote that decided the fate of bus cameras was not held during a regularly scheduled transportation committee meeting. Instead, the meeting was announced on the Assembly floor and took place immediately, in a room called the Assembly parlor. (The usual spot is the Speaker’s conference room.) The suddenness of the meeting and the unexpected location may explain why some committee members arrived late, missing the initial, binding show of hands, which sources referred to as the public vote. As we reported last week, while the official tally read 14-11, several members were absent during the public vote, meaning their votes were automatically counted as "Yes."

One Assembly member asserted that "not everyone can be everywhere at the
same time" during the blitz of activity at the end of each legislative
session. Another source disagreed, saying that members should always be able to make committee votes. It
is possible, given the slim margin of the vote, that the outcome could
have swung in the other direction had the public vote been held
while the full committee was present.

Multiple sources told Streetsblog that two committee members not present for the public vote — Sam Hoyt of Buffalo and Marc Alessi of Suffolk — supported the bus camera legislation, but had their votes tallied against it. In Hoyt’s telling, he was attending another meeting when the transportation committee meeting was called. By the time he arrived at the Assembly parlor, the public vote had already happened. Hoyt says he was unaware that the bus camera vote was on the agenda.

"I voted with the chair, and with the confusion, that meant that it was counter to my wishes of supporting the cameras," said Hoyt, who has had his own bill for Buffalo red-light cameras blocked by Gantt. "I was a sponsor of the bill. Had I known in advance that it was going to be on the agenda, and had I known the time of the meeting… chances are I would have voted against the chair." Alessi did not return requests for comment.

Hoyt sponsored a bill this session dealing with industrial development agencies, and, according to a source who observed the meeting, after the public vote, Gantt told him, "I voted for your shitty IDA bill, you’re voting for this." Hoyt said he did not recall the exchange. Gantt has not returned calls to his legislative office or district office for comment on this story.

Sources who were at the capitol last week also report that the names on the official roll call differed from the show-of-hands public vote because Gantt allowed two committee members to save face. Two members who voted against tabling the bill during the public vote were scolded by Gantt, and are recorded in the roll call as having voted for the hold. This enabled two other members, who at first voted in favor of tabling the bill, to then be recorded as having voted against it, and appear in the roll call as supporters of bus lane enforcement. The initial 14-11 public tally remained the same.

That Gantt was able to engineer a swap of votes between committee members may indicate that the outcome was not in doubt after all, at least from the chair’s point of view.

Advocates who pulled Gantt aside before the vote told Streetsblog that he expressed little interest in hearing their case. Instead, they said he reiterated his objection to bus cameras due to the supposed invasion of privacy. The New York Civil Liberties Union helped craft the bill’s language and signed off on the revised version.

Gantt’s handling of the bus camera vote has been singled out as particularly undemocratic, even by Albany’s low-ranking standards. "This vote is not indicative of the way that chairs run things in
this institution," said one source familiar with the workings of the Assembly. "What’s going on here is not the norm. The vast
majority of chairs would be willing to hold a vote on a bill that
they disagree with and let it pass."

Correction: This piece originally ran with an incorrectly transcribed quote from Assemblyman Sam Hoyt. The quote has been amended to accurately read "…chances are I would have voted against the chair."

  • I am glad to see Streetsblog keep on this guy, and I hope you continue to.

  • Anon

    Gantt is an old school ward-heeler who is a power-broker up in Rochester. He probably hasn’t seen a bus lane in his entire life, this is a part of the issue. Friendly hint: somebody need to tell him the tickets will go to drivers from Jersey, and LI. He’ll feel better about it.

    More significantly, somebody needs to lobby Shelly to look at the makeup of that committee. A quick survey implies there are only about 3 members from transit-using districts, and close to 10 (again, quick survey) who are from what might be considered anti-transit districts. Shouldn’t there be someone from Manhattan on the committee?

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Obviously I’m not enough of a cynic but it never ceases to amaze me that this is how our state legislature functions. For a committee chair to hold a surprise vote in a surprise location is just… shameful.

  • da

    Sounds like not much is going to happen while Gantt heads that committee. Does anyone know how long that will be?

  • Sounds like he played the game better. Politics, like all forms interaction, is a game. It’s not thuggishness. It’s life. It looks bad when it’s against something you want, but when it works in your favor? Who complains about the process then? Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but I see nothing wrong with this. Perhaps I don’t have a clear definition of what “fair” means. Or if anything ever is really fair.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Obviously I’m not enough of a cynic but it never ceases to amaze me that this is how our state legislature functions.”

    This is NOT how the state legislature functions. The fact that there was drama, arm twisting and a vote in extremely unusual. These transportation issues seem to have opened up cracks in the legislature that didn’t exist before.

    The way the state actually functions is this:

    There are certain interests, mostly corporate (looking to for special tax breaks, subsidies, and monopoly power) and public service producer (looking to provide less for more) who dominate Albany. They give money to the big three.

    The big three, beholden to these interests, make all the big decisions.

    The rest receive a share of member item pork (an insignificant share of what the government does) and campaign contributions in exchange for voting yes on whatever Bruno/Silver decide to allow. No votes are virtually unheard of. In fact until recently, most legislators didn’t even bother to show up, as their votes were automatically counted as yes.

    When I first heard of State Senator Maltese, I thought “serf” was his formal title not his name.

  • JK

    The deal is that the Authorities Committee (Brodsky) which oversees the MTA (transit) goes to someone from Downstate. (Westchester counts.) The Transpo Committee, which traditionally steers bridge and highway pork and big contracts, goes to someone from Upstate. It’s a head on collision with modernity for Gantt et al to deal with issues like BRT, bus cams or anything outside the AAA, cars first and last mindset. Gantt is from a generation which sees buses as transportation for the the poor and having a car as a symbol of membership in the middle class. For years, Gantt’s main Albany staffer was the former chief lobbyist for AAA. It’s no surprise, he completely subscribes to their vision of the car as the middle class dream machine.

  • So, why aren’t we fighting for home rule legislation (or secession, if it comes to that) rather than trying to win battles in the hopelessly corrupt state legislature? NYC is doomed to lose. Even if our state legislature were a model of transparent and progressive government, it does not make sense for issues of solely local import to be decided in the state capital.

    I don’t just want locally grown food, I want locally grown government. I want decisions about communities to be made in those communities.

  • gecko

    The vote should be done again out in the open.

  • joe bloggs

    Most everyone agrees buses are ridiculously slow yet everyone agrees that buses are necessary to the overall transportation picture. This was an important piece of legislation that could have dramatically improved the performance of buses. This is bad news.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “So, why aren’t we fighting for home rule legislation (or secession, if it comes to that).”

    In the long history of New York there were plenty of times when the city government was pathetic and corrupt and the state saved our rear. Now it is the reverse. Better for the state to get fixed than to secede from it, though that may not be possible.

  • za

    What about Ivan Lafayette, the hack from Queens who voted to table the measure? Somebody needs to get him on the record explaining the rationale for his vote.

  • I have formed a Livable Streets Group for the purpose of organizing around this issue. Please join: http://www.livablestreets.com/projects/committe-to-convince-david-gantt-of-the-merits-of-mass-transit-and-law-enforcement/blog/ to help fight for bus camera enforcement.

  • This would be an excellent chance for Sen. Eric Adams to prove his stated willingness to make a difference in transit issues. Get him on this committee and let him make his mark on it. I think he’s another power broker in the making, though in a constructive way. Let’s build our own power broker, confronting a bad power broker with a good one. Are you listening, Sen. Adams?

  • Oops, I’ve just realized Gantt is in the Assembly, not the Senate. But the concept is sound. We need to get more people from downstate on that committee, plus at least one who’s willing to make waves.

  • Moser

    Great reporting, analyis – thanks.

  • daniel

    By holding a surprise vote in a surprise location, the chair was deliberately trying to exclude members from making the vote. This, of course, directly equates to disenfranchising the absent members and the people who elected them. When did the one man in Albany get the power to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands (or more) of New York citizens? This shows you the low regard in which he holds the voters of the state of New York. We should begin a campaign of education aimed at the voters in his district so they know exactly who and what they are sending to Albany. I can not believe that they would willingly and knowingly endorse this reprehensible and undemocratic behavior.

  • anon

    Good point. How much would it cost to start a mass mailing to everyone in his district? Do we know if there is anyone running against him in the primary? Does he have an opponent for the general election yet? If so, what are the positions of the opponent(s)?

  • I just wanted to commend Ben on his continued work in exposing David Gantt’s disregard for the needs of riders in the tri-state area. It is high time we get elected officials in office who understand why all levels of government need to properly invest in our transit infrastructure in terms of finances & laws.

  • Dave

    Bruno’s gone (though his replacement doesn’t sound all that much better…my test of course being support of CP) and this guy should be next. Questionable ties to business associates with favoritism implied; a city-hater attitude; and typical Albany shenanigans.

    Larry you say the state saved NYC in the past; well the past is past and I say we NY’ers take up succession once again to get what we deserve from the cronies, hacks and self-serving idiots in Albany. Look at Bruno and the $3 billion he sent to his home district while the most heavily-used transit system in the country deteriorates and is broke.

  • Larry #11, no matter how corrupt NYC government might get (e.g., Tammany Hall), I think there’s a larger issue involved in that local issues should be decided locally, and it’s easier for people to hold their representatives accountable when their representatives live in their neighborhood. I would have no problems in NYC remaining part of NYS if it had home rule where it counts.

  • JF

    According to some articles, the Assembly ended the practice of “empty-seat voting” back in 2005. So how come Hoyt and Alessi’s votes were counted as “yes” votes?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/07/nyregion/07rules.html
    http://www.city-journal.org/html/7_2_albanys_travesty.html
    http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/_poststandard-two_years_later_much_is_undone.htm

  • Secede from NY State and we will indeed “get what we deserve” . . . I wonder what would happen to the rates on our water supply, all of which is upstate.

    This system needs fixing, that is certain. There will be a sea change this year when the DEms take the Senate; not to mention the bizarre series of events including the implosions of Spitzer and Bruno (only a matter of time before Joe gets indicted, IMHO) and the completely unexpected rise of Paterson to the Governorship.

    At worst the bus camera bill is delayed until the next session. Keep the spotlight on Gantt, pressure the hell out of your elected officials, start thinking about who we should be backing for Senate Majority leader after November, and back primary challengers where appropriate, like Paul Newell.

    The idea of secession is preposterous. And while home rule is important, it needs to be balanced against sound regional planning needs. I believe we need more emphasis on Regional Planning, not less. Let’s focus on things that we can actually accomplish.

    On that note, I’m looking to organize a group of transit advocates to meet and discuss strategies to influence the Ravitch Commission. WE have a few months to try to shape this policy to get the best outcome possible. Anybody interested can reach me at ggreilly AT gmail DOT com.

    Best,
    Gary

  • Gary #22, on what grounds are you calling secession “preposterous”–beyond the issue of our water supply?

  • CM

    Gantt was also concerned about how his constituents–from Rochester–would know where the boundary for Congestion Pricing started when they came to visit NYC. Oy. Tragic.

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