Who Will Hold the Purse?
Mired in ghost-ticket controversy, long-time Albany treasurer Betty Barnette faces a strong challenger
Published on 8/13/2009 by Metroland written by Chet Hardin
For years, Kathy Sheehan made superconducting magnets. Well, she didn’t actually make these essential components for medical MRIs, but the firm she worked for did. “It was a very cool place to work,” Sheehan said, “very innovative.”
Sheehan, a Democratic candidate for Albany city treasurer, put in 10 years with the high-tech firm Intermagnetics General Corporation in Latham, serving under three titles: vice-president, general counsel and corporate secretary.
“In my role as vice-president, I was a part of the senior-management team that set the strategy for the company and then executed that strategy. As general counsel, I was responsible for legal compliance,” she said. The company was publicly traded, and Sheehan oversaw the filings with the Security and Exchange Commission, “any queries that came from the SEC, our obligations to shareholders, notices to shareholders, our stock-option plan, all of that was under my scope of responsibility.”
For much of this, she worked closely with the chief finance officer and the finance department, she said. “I am used to working at a company that is very transparent. All of our financials are publicly disclosed and reported. Anything that was going on in the company that was important to shareholders had to be disclosed in a timely manner. So I have operated in an environment that requires a high level of transparency and accountability, and I think that that could really benefit the city.”
When Sheehan started with the company, she said, they were making about $88 million in sales. By the time the company was acquired by its largest customer in 2006, it had reached $300 million in sales and doubled its employees.
Sheehan is running against the current treasurer, Betty Barnette, in a year when the 18-year incumbent has been mired in the controversies surrounding the city’s no-fine tickets swindle. Barnette was called before the Common Council during its months-long investigation into the city’s systems of awarding no-fine tickets.
“I had hopped that we’d be debating on Sept. 8th,” Sheehan said. “The League of Women Voters had set up a debate, and I was just informed that Barnette said that she had a scheduling conflict and wouldn’t be able to debate.”
Barnette did not return calls for comment.
As treasurer, Barnette oversees the Parking Violations Bureau, which is responsible for collecting the fines for illegal parking in the city. Under oath, she told the council that she had never heard of the bull’s-eye stickers that the police union passed out to its members, which protected them from parking fines, nor the VIP list that likewise shielded city employees and members of the public alike. “Until recently I had no knowledge of any bull’s-eyes or placard system, ghost tickets, no-fine tickets or VIP list or an exempt system,” Barnette told the council.
However, on May 8, the Times Union reported that Barnette had received at least seven no-fine tickets, calling into question her earlier testimony.
When asked how she could have been ignorant of a system that had been handing out thousands of no-fine tickets annualy for more than a decade, considering that she had personally received seven of them, the treasurer stood by her initial claim, telling the TU reporter: “The first I heard of any ghost tickets or warning tickets is when I read it in the Times Union. The truth is the truth and that is the truth.”
The report from the New York state comptroller’s office, released this month, stated that the city issued 57,420 between 2001 and 2008.
Barnette, the former chair of the Albany County Democratic Committee, is a staunch ally of Mayor Jerry Jennings. According to her campaign filings with the New York State Board of Elections, Barnette has received $4,000 from Capital City Committee, the mayor’s PAC, as well as $1,342.73 from Jennings campaign committee.
“The treasurer is an elected citywide office, an independent officer that shouldn’t answer to just one person in City Hall,” said Sheehan. “I would like to take some of the politics out of it. I would like to bring a professionalism to that office. Particularly in an office that, in 2010, will become the chief fiscal officer for the city.”
This is an important point, added one of Sheehan’s most ardent supporters, Council President Shawn Morris. Next year, Albany is restructuring the government offices that oversee the city’s finances. Along with the creation of an auditor’s office, the treasurer will be given the responsibilities formerly handled by the comptroller, including the issuing of municipal bonds, cash-flow forecasting and making investments for the city. The treasurer will essentially become the chief financial officer for the city.
“I think that Kathy certainly has a much-better background,” Morris said. “She is bringing a nice big resume.”
“There are issues with the treasurer’s office in general,” Morris continued. “There are so many ways we need to improve what happens there.” For example, she pointed to two consecutive lawsuits filed by the city comptroller’s office against the treasurer’s office for not filing information electronically.
“I sponsored a law that required her to do this, and she still didn’t do it,” Morris said. “There is this reluctance to comply with actual laws. There just seems to be a reluctance by the incumbent to comply with the other offices in city and state government, and I think that that is a very, very serious issue.”
Plus, Morris said, she supports Sheehan because she sees her as outside Albany’s culture of political positioning. “I think that there needs to be a stronger separation between political offices and elected offices. So you have the city treasurer as the county chair, and fully embracing the various political shenanigans against other elected officials. I think that that raises a lot of concern. Maybe the treasurer’s office is one that shouldn’t be so politically charged.”
“These are taxpayers dollars,” Sheehan said. “We are responsible to the taxpayers. It is important to understand what we are doing with our funds, how we are safeguarding those funds, and what the policies and procedures are behind how we collect taxpayer money and how we spend it. I don’t see that as highly political.”
“I think a lot of the problem is the perception that the current treasurer is in lockstep with the mayor,” Sheehan said, “and acts as though he is to whom she answers. Now, that may be fair or unfair, but that is definitely a perception out there. I would make it very clear who I ultimately answer to.”