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."