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'A great leader': Auburn judge credits two decades of success to dedicated team

One of the last things Auburn City Court Judge Michael McKeon took out of his office ahead of retiring after 20 years was a framed picture.

At first glance it seems like a painting, but it's actually a photograph, one that depicts McKeon's father, a lawyer, leaving the Cayuga County Courthouse, decades before his son would spend two terms as Auburn's lead judge.

After graduating from Auburn High School in 1975, McKeon thought his path would lead him into a career as a history teacher. He even went so far as to earn his accreditation in that field.

Ultimately, however, McKeon would end up following his father's footsteps into a career in law that culminated in the judgeship that he hopes left a record of encouraging people to change their lives for the better.

Following his graduation from The College of Wooster in Ohio and later the Duquesne University School of Law, McKeon joined his father's law practice part-time.

It wasn't until he served as a clerk for fellow Auburn resident and New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert White that McKeon got the idea to one day serve as a judge.

First, however, McKeon would work as the assistant and later full corporation counsel for the city of Auburn, while also teaching criminal justice at Cayuga Community College.

The combined experience from private practice, with the city and with White, gave McKeon enough experience to run a successful campaign for city court judge when the position opened in 1999.

Initially, thanks to under-staffing and natural busyness of a court that deals in everything from "dog cases to drug cases," McKeon's first days as judge were something of an "organized chaos," he said.

"It certainly was a full-time job and then some," McKeon said, later adding "You look back sometimes and think 'how did you manage to do that?'"

But, thanks to court staff, especially Chief Clerk Debra Robillard, the position soon became the best job he's ever had, McKeon said.

"The people I've worked with here are probably the hardest working, most dedicated people I've met in all my 40-year career in law," McKeon said.

Robillard, who McKeon said he barely goes a day without speaking to, said it has been a pleasure working with the judge, and that the two have learned a lot together.

"We're a team and he's a great leader," Robillard said.

Having presided over so many cases over the years, McKeon said it's often difficult to point to certain ones that stand out over his entire career.

What McKeon didn't hesitate to say, however, was that the establishment of specialized courts focused on helping and rehabilitating offenders with drug, behavioral, mental health and domestic violence problems was the "most important" legacy of his career.

Beginning on Feb. 24, 1999 — a date he remembers because it coincides with the birth of his twin daughters — the city first began holding drug and alcohol treatment court with the goal of not just reducing recidivism but helping get qualified offenders into recovery, McKeon said.

"All these courts are about transformation in people's lives," McKeon said.

McKeon said he was moved to start a drug court in Auburn, something that first started in Miami in 1989 and in New York in 1995, after seeing defendants come in again and again.

"I began to realize that the normal process of incarcerating people didn't solve their problems," McKeon said. "It was a revolving door that didn't stop revolving."

A recent independent evaluation of the drug court required as part of the grants the court received found that the specialized courts perform better than the nationwide average in terms of getting offenders into recovery and staying out of trouble, McKeon said.

He again deferred the praise for that success to the court's staff, particularly Carol Colvin, the drug court coordinator since 2003, who he called "the best coordinator in the state."

But for McKeon, the calculations of things like money saved from cases that didn't have to be prosecuted comes secondary to seeing the real change the court makes in lives.

In one of his last sessions on the bench, McKeon said a graduate of the drug treatment program came before him and told him how they had turned their life around and that they wouldn't be there if it weren't for him.

For his part, McKeon said he only gives participants the "nudge" they need to change their lives themselves.

But the biggest reward for McKeon comes in the form of the 30 to 35 babies that were born drug- and addiction-free after their mothers successfully completed the drug treatment court's programs.

"It is wonderful to see a baby born healthy. It's really a moving thing," McKeon said.

As he was looking toward hearing his last cases, McKeon said the decision to end his time as judge was "bittersweet," but overall a good way to end a career.

"Certainly, this was the most rewarding thing I've ever done," McKeon said.

Auburn city council to select part-time city court judge

AUBURN — Thursday's Auburn City Council meeting will be solely dedicated to determine a replacement for a part-time associate city court judge position.

At an executive session at city hall's council chambers slated for noon, Dec. 27, the council will review employment histories and qualifications of candidates being considered for the job. The position will become vacant on Jan. 1. 

The current part-time city judge, David Thurston, was recently elected to fill Michael McKeon's shoes as he retires as the city's full-time judge. 

Auburn Mayor Michael Quill said the appointment is necessary and important. He added that the appointment will grant Thurston leeway after being on call at all times.  

Although Thurston and McKeon cannot recommend a candidate over others, they can provide information on a candidate's qualifications if requested by the council. Thurston declined to comment for this article. 

The part-time position runs on six-year terms with a current salary of $93,000 plus pension, medical, dental and eye care coverage. 

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Cuomo outlines proposed election reforms

In 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to make it easier for New Yorkers to vote. 

The Democratic governor outlined his legislative agenda last week and proposed a series of voting reforms that aim to improve the electoral process.

Many of the proposals aren't new. He wants to adopt automatic voter registration, a policy to automatically add new voters to the rolls and give them the option to opt out if they wish. He supports same-day registration, which would give non-voters wishing to cast a ballot a new option to register.

Early voting was mentioned. Democrats in the state Legislature have long pushed to adopt early voting, which would give voters access to the polls days before Election Day. 

Consolidating the federal, state and local primaries has been proposed before. Democrats wanted to move the primary to late June, while Republicans advocated for an August date. Because neither side was willing to budge, there have been separate dates for the federal primary and state and local primary elections since 2012. 

There are some new proposals on Cuomo's agenda. He proposed allowing votes by mail. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 22 states allow voting by mail. Vote-by-mail involves sending ballots to voters and they have the option of mailing the ballot back, or they can submit their ballot at a polling location on or before Election Day. 

The National Conference of State Legislatures described vote-by-mail as "absentee voting for everyone." 

Cuomo also called for designating Election Day as a state holiday. Proponents of voting reforms want to declare Election Day a national holiday so that it would give voters more time to cast their ballots. 

"Let's make a real statement about the importance of voting," Cuomo said Monday before announcing his support of making Election Day a state holiday.

Outside of voting reforms, Cuomo outlined a few campaign finance and ethics reforms in his remarks Monday. A couple of the proposals aren't new. He reiterated his support of closing the LLC loophole, which allows wealthy individuals to create several limited liability corporations to circumvent the state's campaign contribution limits. 

For state elected officials, Cuomo wants to ban outside income. A compensation committee recently recommended a pay raise for state lawmakers and statewide officials, including the governor. One of the panel's recommendations was a limit on outside income. Cuomo would go further and ban any outside income.

Additionally, Cuomo is eyeing a ban on corporate contributions to political candidates. Since running for governor in 2010 and in his two re-election bids, he has received millions from corporate entities and LLCs. 

The Let NY Vote Coalition, which has been advocating for election reform, praised Cuomo's proposals. 

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY and a member of the coalition, lauded the governor for including automatic voter registration, early voting and one primary election date in his agenda. She urged Cuomo to work with legislators to pass "the strongest reform package possible."

"New Yorkers need at least two weekends to vote early, flexibility to change parties and full restoration of rights for people on parole," Lerner said. "It's time to see if a unified Democratic government can truly deliver on progressive voting reforms." 

The voting reforms proposed by Cuomo will receive a warm reception from the Democratic state Legislature. Beginning in January, Democrats will control the state Senate. In the past, the GOP-led state Senate has blocked many of these reforms. Democrats, some of whom have sponsored bills to adopt early voting, automatic voter registration and other reforms, likely won't stand in the way of Cuomo's plan. 

The new legislative session opens in January. Cuomo will commence his third term as governor with an inauguration address Jan. 1 on Ellis Island.

Trump: 'I can't tell you when' government will reopen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that parts of the federal government will stay closed until Democrats agree to put up more walls along the U.S.-Mexico border to deter criminal elements. He said he's open to calling the wall something else as long as he ends up with an actual wall.

In a Christmas Day appearance in the Oval Office, Trump issued a lengthy defense of his desire for a wall, saying it's the only way to stop drugs and human traffickers from entering the country. In a nod to the political stakes he's facing, Trump said he wants the wall by "election time" in 2020.

The promise of a border wall was a central component of Trump's presidential campaign.

"I can't tell you when the government's going to be open. I can tell you it's not going to be open until we have a wall or fence, whatever they'd like to call it," Trump said, referring to Democrats who staunchly oppose walling off the border.

"I'll call it whatever they want, but it's all the same thing," he told reporters after participating in a holiday video conference with representatives from all five branches of the military stationed in Alaska, Bahrain, Guam and Qatar.

Trump argued that drug flows and human trafficking can only be stopped by a wall.

"We can't do it without a barrier. We can't do it without a wall," he said. "The only way you're going to do it is to have a physical barrier, meaning a wall. And if you don't have that then we're just not opening" the government.

Democrats oppose spending money on a wall, preferring instead to pump the dollars into fencing, technology and other means of controlling access to the border. Trump argued that Democrats oppose a wall only because he is for one.

The stalemate over how much to spend and how to spend it caused the partial government shutdown that began Saturday following a lapse in funding for departments and agencies that make up about 25 percent of the government.

About 800,000 government workers are affected. Many are on the job but must wait until after the shutdown to be paid again.

Trump claimed that many of these workers "have said to me and communicated, 'stay out until you get the funding for the wall.' These federal workers want the wall. The only one that doesn't want the wall are the Democrats."

Trump didn't say how he's hearing from federal workers, excluding those he appointed to their jobs or who work with him in the White House. But many rank-and-file workers have gone to social media with stories of the financial hardship they expect to face because of the shutdown, now in its fourth day.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders of Congress, said Trump "wanted the shutdown, but he seems not to know how to get himself out it." Trump had said he'd be "proud" to shut down the government in a fight over the wall.

He also had said Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico has refused.

Trump followed up on a Monday tweet in which he said he "just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas." Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to follow-up questions, despite repeated requests.

The reference to 115 miles was unclear. Trump may have been referring to 33 miles of construction in the Rio Grande Valley that is set to begin in February, part of a total of 84 miles that Congress funded in March, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Asked who received the contract, Trump replied: "Different people, different people."

He did say he envisions a wall so tall, "like a three-story building," that only an Olympic champion would be able to scale it. He also compared Democrats' treatment of him over the wall to their defense of James Comey after Trump fired him as FBI director.

"It's a disgrace what's happening in our country but, other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas," he said.