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COUNTY LEGISLATURE SCRUBS MEETING MINUTES CLEAN OF BUDGET-RELATED PROCEDURAL ERRORS

Without comment days ago, the Erie County Legislature approved the sanitized minutes of its late-night session of Dec. 8, when members ramming through a 2005 budget turned their collective back on their own rules.

The Legislature's record of that night, now official, makes no mention of the procedural errors that triggered a trio of lawsuits, one of which continues.

The West Seneca taxpayer who alleges the Legislature chronically violates the Open Meetings Law says its willingness to accept an incomplete record proves again that the public's view is shrouded.

"To a degree it shows their intent to mislead the public, not only with private meetings but in how they record their public meetings," said Daniel T. Warren, who got a State Supreme Court judge to agree that lawmakers violated the Open Meetings Law on Dec. 8.

Warren on May 16 will ask the judge to forbid the Legislature from meeting in secret again. If the judge does so, and lawmakers violate his order, they could be found in contempt of court and punished with fines and jail, Warren says.

As the clock sped toward their midnight deadline Dec. 8, lawmakers began their blitzkrieg session to force a 2005 budget. Legislators were confronted with documents, still warm from the printer, outlining $1.1 billion in spending, but members had little time to discern the specifics.

Most members wanted a budget that didn't resemble the "red budget" proposed by County Executive Joel A. Giambra as his way to show disaster would occur without a penny increase in the sales tax. Earlier that day, legislators had secured the 10 votes needed - a two-thirds majority that wouldn't last - to bring the tax to 9.25 cents on the dollar.

To speed the new budget's passage that night, Republican Charles M. Swanick moved that Legislature rules be set aside, so each freshly presented amendment needn't be read aloud. The tedious process would have helped lawmakers understand what they were voting on - exposing pork and patronage - but the deadline would have been missed and Giambra's red budget would become law.

The Legislature's Democratic majority leader, Lynn M. Marinelli of the Town of Tonawanda, had taken part in a secret negotiation an hour earlier, when Giambra and 10 lawmakers haggled over pork and patronage, then angrily parted without a consensus.

Marinelli objected to Swanick's request, and under the Legislature's rules an objection by any member is enough to keep the rules in place. Still, Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr. granted Swanick's motion, and within minutes a slender majority OK'd a $1.1 billion budget.

Days later, a draft version of the minutes did not mention Marinelli's objection, which had been recorded by television news cameras. That draft weighed heavily in scuttling a lawsuit challenging the budget's validity. Four county officials, including Republican Legislator Denise Marshall of Lancaster, argued Marinelli's objection should have nullified the budget's adoption.

In a ruling protecting most of the disputed budget, State Supreme Court Justice John P. Lane rejected Marshall's argument. "Records of the Legislature," the judge wrote, indicate Swanick's motion was adopted by "unanimous consent."

"The minutes are not a transcript," Legislature Clerk Kevin M. Kelly told The Buffalo News later. "All debates are not put in the minutes." The Legislature's minutes record the action, he said, and Swanick's motion was indeed granted.

After Lane's ruling, Marinelli said that before the Legislature gave its final approval to those pages, she would ensure her objection was reflected.

Erie County's 2005 budget has been corrected, adjusted and amended since Dec. 8, because the 10-vote bloc of lawmakers willing to raise the sales tax fell apart. Pork and patronage are said to be gone. And a few new rounds of lawsuits are raging.

So that night's events had faded by the time lawmakers just two weeks ago had the chance to approve the Dec. 8 record, along with minutes of other meetings from late 2004 and early this year.

The action surrounding Swanick's motion reads the same as it did on the version the judge read: no objections. And no member stood on April 7 to correct the crucial passage.

"This was a very unique session," Marinelli said of Dec. 8. She did not elaborate Wednesday as to why she didn't try to change the now-official version other than to say her intent Dec. 8 wasn't to hold up the budget process. She mainly wanted to be registered as voting against the final budget that night.

Marshall on Wednesday said she did not realized her April 7 vote to approve the minutes for several meetings included minutes from Dec. 8.

When lawmakers meet today, she will insist that her vote be changed. "They need to be accurate," she said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com