Last year, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needed the support of the Hudson Valley's county executives for his proposed replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, he formed the Mass Transit Task Force and put them on it.
Soon after, when Cuomo wanted to prove the bridge's design would be world-class, he appointed a Selection Committee that included artist Jeffrey Koons, architect Richard Meier and other big-name aesthetes.
On Feb. 15, the governor created a Visual Quality Panel to consider colors, textures and other purely aesthetic aspects of the new bridge.
Regarding new toll rates, a politically touchy subject, he called last year for a Toll/Financing Task Force, but has yet to name its members.
Clearly, the popular Democratic governor has a penchant for panels.
Of course there's nothing new about politicians convening ad hoc committees to deliberate on thorny subjects. Historically, the tactic has been seen as a good way to bury an issue, while pretending to care about it. Renowned for his powers of persuasion and his tight grip on the reins of government, Cuomo has used his special panels more decisively and constructively than the stereotype, analysts say.
Employed in connection with a good many potentially controversial issues -- the Tappan Zee Bridge as well as state mandate relief, education reform and New York's response to superstorm Sandy -- Cuomo's committees have been active, keeping discussions of important issues alive while deflecting controversy away from the governor. Upon releasing potentially controversial findings, the committees have afforded the governor political cover. And they've disarmed naysayers by endowing them with leverage in important discussions.
"I think the concept of encouraging different stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process is a good one," said Tony Sayegh, a Republican political strategist.
The panels have had their share of critics. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican who was instrumental in persuading the governor to create the Mass Transit Task Force, has registered his dissapointment with the 28-member body.
The task force is slated to hold a total of ten monthly meetings, each two hours long. The first meeting was devoted to introductions, Astorino said. In the second meeting, members spent 45 minutes discussing whether their discussions should be open to the public. They never seriously discussed mass transit, he said. The third meeting was held on Friday, and there signs the committee was getting serious, with a substantive discussion of mass transit options for residents of Rockland County.
"It's like herding cats," said Astorino, a Republican who is often discussed as a future gubernatorial candidate. "It's a very large group, all with diverse opinions. We need to sort of bring it home on what we're trying to accomplish."
Another Mass Transit Task Force member agreed.
"We haven't gotten to the nuts and bolts," said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "If it had been smaller, maybe we'd be at the nuts and bolts a little bit quicker."
Both Vanterpool and Astorino commented on the committee's work before Friday's meeting.
INCLUSIVE, BUT FREQUENTLY SECRET
The committees also raise questions about government transparency.
Members of the Tappan Zee Selection Committee were given strict instructions not to speak to the press, in part because leaks about the bidding process might have given one bidder or another an unfair advantage. Newsday was invited on a boat trip with committee members; but the trip was canceled due to rain, and the invite wasn't extended again.
The Mass Transit Committee held its first two meetings in private. Only then did members decide to open further deliberations to the public. The Visual Quality Panel is slated to meet for the first time before the end of the month. It's not yet clear whether its meetings will be public.
Iona College Political Science Professor Jeanne Zaino suggested there isn't anything sinister about the committees. She feels they warrant extra scrutiny, because they are operating outside government's usual checks and balances.
"Anytime in a democracy there is a political structure that is designed to give advice on key policy issues but beyond the control of the public and the ballot box, it deserves to be examined closely," she said. "It isn't on its face necessarily undemocratic or problematic, but accountability and transparency are key."
MEMBERS DON'T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON
The lack of communication cuts both ways. On the day when Cuomo announced the winning bidder for the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee project late last year, members of the governor's Selection Committee -- reached by Newsday -- expressed surprise that an announcement had been made.
"I had some frustration around that," said a member who asked not to be named.
Asked for a comment, the governor's special adviser on the Tappan Zee, Brian Conybeare, said the Selection Committee was part of an unprecedented drive to engage the public in discussion of the bridge project. Coneybeare argued more broadly that the panels appointed under Cuomo -- and the hearings the panels have conducted -- have given constitutents a practical way to voice concerns.
Of the bridge-related panels, Coneybeare said, "Gov. Cuomo is committed to making this the most open and inclusive infrastructure project in New York State history. We want to get even more input from the people of the Hudson Valley and not have this be a process that is decided from the top down."
Cuomo isn't always so concerned with public outreach, Sayegh said. The governor hasn't hesitated to dispense with consensus-building committees on other priorities, he said.
Tori Weisel, president of the Tarrytown-based Irving Neighborhood Association and a member of the Visual Quality Panel, said Cuomo's affinity for committees has been a big net plus for New York State.
She has been highly critical of the state in the past, she said. Now she's confident the bridge will be built quickly while her group's concerns receive a fair airing.
"Since Cuomo has come on, they have fast-forwarded this thing. He's got this fast-forward optimism to keep the momentum going," Weisel said. "He would never allow those panels to get bogged down."