The federal housing monitor wants Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino to cough up information on communications he's had with lawmakers on a controversial income anti-discrimination bill.
As if a paper trail of memorandums and emails weren't enough, James E. Johnson also wants a log of in-person meetings, phone calls and voice mails that any members of the Astorino administration have had on the matter.
While he's at it, the monitor might as well ask for any Post-it notes or off-the-cuff remarks the county executive may have made in an elevator, to neighbors, or to some random bloke at the grocery store.
For sure, that would be absurd. But so too is Johnson's asking for all of this minutia as the Board of Legislators prepares to vote on the bill. None of it should matter at this point; Astorino has said he'll sign on the dotted line, fulfilling his obligation.
The monitor asks for too much. And at a cost of roughly $1,000 an hour, there have got to be better ways for the monitor to manage this decree than going through hundreds of documents that'll probably amount to bupkis.
Isn't there affordable housing to build? Hello.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the monitor sure seem skeptical about Astorino's renewed pledge to "promote" and then sign the so-called source-of-income bill, which would forbid landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on where they derive their income, such as Section 8 housing vouchers. It has been a source of agita since the settlement was reached in 2009 and has resulted in court-cases, appeals and plenty of fiery rhetoric.
While Astorino was a bit too brazen by saying that the previous county executive actually promoted the bill -- and therefore he didn't have to -- this particular bureaucratic battle is all but settled. After the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in April ruled against Astorino, and then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of Manhattan -- the same sheriff going after crooked pols in Albany -- told the county executive that if he didn't promote and sign the darn bill he'd face contempt of court charges, the county executive relented.
Now, the Board of Legislators is mulling the bill, a public hearing is scheduled, and it could very well become law in June.
But the latest overreaching request by the monitor gives conspiracy theorists much to chew on. The narrative aligns well with the controversies now facing President Barack Obama's administration, notably The Associated Press subpoenas and the IRS targeting conservative groups.
While I'm not sold on any grand conspiracy, you sure do get a sense that there are plenty of people who want to see Astorino fail on this housing deal.
"I don't think Washington wants Westchester to succeed," Legis. Michael Smith, a Republican of Mount Pleasant, told me this week. "I really think the squeeze on Westchester County has a lot to do with the politics of the county executive . . . It's indicative of the tenor coming out of Washington, D.C. Our rights are being thrown out the window."
Astorino is a conservative-leaning Republican and considered a rising star in the party. He is up for re-election in November, and housing is sure to be an issue. A failure on this front might affect his immediate race, or others down the road should he decide to run for higher office such as governor.
On Smith's point regarding the housing deal, consider the $7.4 million that HUD stripped from the county because of several impasses -- including this source-of-income issue and another split over the sixth rejection of planning documents. Even though the county is a year ahead of schedule, losing that money is sure to slow construction. The overall goal is 750 housing units in 31 mostly wealthy and white communities over seven-years. The 2016 deadline will creep up fast.
The county executive once told me that he believed the housing units would be built long before the paperwork and legal fights are ever sorted out.
Some more paper got added to the mix.
Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.