N.Y. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appeared in Ithaca on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Heastie's Facebook page

Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial written by Jeff Stein, editor of the Ithaca Voice.

To submit a guest column, contact me anytime at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Perhaps the most important issue for the Ithaca area at the state level is the Cayuga Power Plant.

The coal-fired plant, in Lansing, is seeking approval from New York state to convert its operations to natural gas. That idea is strongly opposed by environmental advocates, NYSEG and several local officials, who say the power plant should instead be phased out and replaced with investments in improved transmission lines. The decision has far-reaching implications for dozens of jobs, the Lansing economy, and energy use in the Ithaca area.

N.Y. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appeared in Ithaca on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Heastie’s Facebook page

So today, when I got a chance to ask New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie a few questions during his tour of Ithaca, I wanted to know what the third most powerful person in state government thought of what should be done with the plant.

See related: A beginner’s guide to the crucial fight over the Cayuga Power Plant

His first reaction: “I haven’t looked at that. Usually, on these types of issues, I defer to the local officials.”

I responded with another question: But what if the local officials disagree, among themselves, about the plant? What happens then?

“There’s only one (official) from Ithaca that I have to listen to,” Heastie said, gesturing toward Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. (Lifton, a Demcorat who supports the renewable energy alternatives to repowering the plant, also attended Wednesday’s meeting with the media and Heastie.)

That response prompted The Ithaca Journal’s Andrew Casler to ask for an additional clarification. Was Speaker Heastie saying he’d simply agree to adopt Lifton’s position on the plant?

“Absolutely,” Heastie said. “Yes.”

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On the one hand, this answer is reassuring: Heastie is promising to trust and take seriously the judgement of the officials who have the most knowledge, the ground-level knowledge, about how their constituents feel.

I was struck that this was a very democratic — note the small “d” — sentiment for a system maligned for being controlled by “Three Amigos” behind closed doors. There’s no way Heastie can have a perfect pulse on every nuance in public preference in every section of the state. His quick willingness to acknowledge those limits, in that respect, seems both commendable and logical — especially by the standards of Albany politicians.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel that the answer also seemed like a bit of an abnegation of Heastie’s responsibility.

Sure, Heastie is from downstate (New York City), and his current tour through Western and Central New York marks a way for him to get to learn the cities he doesn’t know as well. And, sure, he just assumed the Speaker’s position in February — he can’t possibly be expected to have fully-formed views on the zillions of local debates moving through Albany.

Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Cayuga Power Plant faces closure.”

But — and perhaps this is just me here — I still think it’s strange for Heastie to commit to completely removing himself from a major public policy decision. And I’m not sure it’s the right thing for him to do, either.

Heastie’s response appears to fit a pattern for the new Speaker. Heastie had a similar reaction, for instance, when asked by Syracuse.com’s Teri Weaver about a heated fight over the future of Interstate 81.

From that story:

Yes, the speaker heard many thoughts about the future of I-81 in Syracuse during the last three days. No, he’s not going to weigh in on which concept is better – tearing down or rebuilding the elevated highway that runs through Syracuse.

“I’ve learned that there’s differing opinions,” he said, diplomatically. “To me, it’s a local issue.” He said he would wait to see what the community, and the local state lawmakers, recommend in the end.

He also had a similar reaction in Watertown, according to a story in the Watertown Daily Times:

Mr. Heastie said he understood the significance of Fort Drum to the region and the state, and deferred a question on how state officials plan to ensure the long-term viability of military base to Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this. But aren’t leaders in positions of power supposed to be guided by their principles to arrive at a conclusion? Of course Heastie should (very) strongly weigh the preference of the local folks on the ground. But don’t we have a state government for this reason precisely — to prevent the local municipalities from acting purely in their own self-interest?

To see what I mean, perhaps a hypothetical would be useful. Imagine, for instance, that Lifton was publicly pushing for the plant to be re-powered with natural gas because she feared the political fall-out from the plant’s closure. (To be clear: I’m not saying this is the case, just imagining an alternative world.)

In that case, under Heastie’s own precept, New York state would then automatically support the switch to natural gas over transmission upgrades. The decision would effectively suggest that other considerations — what would a natural gas plant mean for CNY’s energy supply? what would it mean for CNY’s job growth? what impact would it have outside of the Ithaca area? — are not germane.

Would that really be a good system? Hm. More thought — and perhaps a master’s in political theory? — may be required to puzzle this out.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.