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Bob McMillanAn Opinion

By Bob McMillan
Presidents v. The Supreme Court

The recent political chatter about “Obamacare” before the Supreme Court of the United States got a great deal of media attention.  President Obama added fuel to the fire when he declared, “Ultimately, I am confident the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

For someone who was a law professor those words were absurd.  Even if a bill passed unanimously in the house and senate, it could still be overturned – if the law was in violation of the Constitution.


Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
1959: The Year The Music Stopped Playing

Nelson Rockefeller’s nomination for Governor in 1958 was partly an upstate revolt against the continued domination of party affairs by the Nassau Republican organization. Rockefeller was a man who always had bigger fish to fry, and throughout his almost 15 years as governor, he often went out of his way not to step on the toes of the touchy Nassau GOP. That’s why Nassau is the only large New York county without a state office building. Respect the turf.

Just before taking office, Rockefeller announced that State Senator William Hults would be Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, but not until the end of the 1959 legislative session, so that Glen Cove, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay and a sliver of Hempstead wouldn’t lose their Senate representation until 1960.


Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
The Eccentric Heiress Of ‘Empty Mansions’

The Nassau County district attorney’s (DA) office makes a cameo appearance in Empty Mansions, an incredible book about Huguette Clark (1906-2011), the Manhattan-raised heiress whose generosity and eccentricities were legendary.

Now that Ryan Murphy, a creator of television’s “Glee,” has optioned Empty Mansions’ film rights, I imagine a scrum of top actresses are vying to play Clark.


How Fire Hydrants Triggered A Revolution

When is a fire hydrant more than a mere hydrant? When it’s part of a nationwide viral experiment in local government that joins community volunteerism with telecommunications technology to maintain critical infrastructure, stretch limited resources and maybe save some lives.

“Adopt-a-Hydrant” is an “app” that runs in your web browser or smartphone and it shows the location of every hydrant. It was written by one of the rockstar software coders at Code for America, a not-for-profit foundation that puts top software writers, designers and managers at the disposal of innovation-oriented local governments. It’s a kind of Peace Corps for Geeks, and their work is posted and available to others.

Originally written for Boston and its 13,000 hydrants, Adopt-a-Hydrant allows residents, businesses and community organizations to promise that they’ll shovel out fire hydrants if it snows. If you adopt a hydrant, you can name it, too. The Boston Fire Department isn’t walking away from any responsibilities or giving up control; it is still responsible for the hydrants in every way. They aren’t selling or leasing public assets. They are harnessing motivated individuals to increase the chances that hydrants will be accessible when they’re needed. BFD can concentrate more of its time, money and personnel on fighting thousands of fires. Digging out a hydrant in an emergency can waste five to seven minutes.

The app was built and launched in Boston in early 2012. It was quickly picked up by other local governments, including Anchorage, Providence, Oakland and Syracuse. Even cities that aren’t in the snow belt have deployed the app, including Raleigh and Buenes Aires (some local systems weren’t built to quickly dig out thousands of hydrants).

But maybe the most impressive part is that cities are building on the basic source code to meet other critical needs, so you can adopt a sidewalk in Chicago or a tsunami warning siren in Honolulu. The base code only uses the word “hydrant” once. It can be replaced with anything. Soon, we will see programs to adopt a park, a playground, a tree. Seattle started asking residents to adopt its 80,000 storm drains in 2011.

In the last year, dozens of municipalities have created “adopt-a-hydrant” programs without the app technology. They score some points, but this doesn’t improve how things work. The app is a toe in the water of something bigger, a way to make government open, transparent, two-way and able to draw on the talent and innovation of members of the community in order to improve that community. This is what millions of people now expect from anyone they do business with in their lives.

Technology is empowering people at the same time that government, like almost every industry, is being hollowed out. We have so much that needs to be fixed and governments at all levels, for whatever reason or motivation, have no more money.

Boston’s Citizens Connect site empowers residents to be “eyes and ears” for the city government. Reports about potholes, graffiti, damaged signs and more photographed, mapped and posted. Sometimes people ask for advice on how to deal with a situation and other citizens tell them what to do. It isn’t just calling and being placed in a phone cue, eventually being filtered to someone in town hall who may or may not respond. It’s government connecting one citizen to another, building communities.

British Columbia’s GovTogetherBC is even further along, opening “consultations and dialogues” with the public on jobs plans, the development of coastal ferries and more than 80 other subjects.

There have already been experiments with “crowdsourcing” software that allows citizens to write complex legislation and develop budgets together. We’re just starting. Toes in the water.