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Strange brew: Insider politics, reservists pay and charter revisions

Insider politics is boring if you happen to be on the outside. The problem is, insider politics sometimes masquerades as good public policy.

For instance, County Executive Mark Poloncarz held a press conference Friday regarding county pay for military reservists called to active duty. With TV cameras rolling and reporter notebooks open, Poloncarz signed an executive order that makes it easier for military reservists employed by the county to continue receiving county pay when called to active duty.

“This executive order will take effect immediately,” Poloncarz said.

What Poloncarz didn’t volunteer was that he also was refusing to sign a law the County Legislature passed, 9-1, that could significantly alter many aspects of county government, including by establishing four-year terms for legislators. The County Charter revisions also would expand the Board of Ethics, create a new process for drawing Legislature district boundaries, and require more minorities and women to be interviewed for top county positions.

By not signing the law by Friday’s deadline, Poloncarz ensured that voters would be prevented from voting on these changes in a referendum during this November’s general election.

So what does this have to do with paying military reservists?

One of the roughly 50 charter changes that Poloncarz would not sign included paying military reservists working in county government their full salaries, on top of their active duty pay, if they are called up to service.

That wasn’t an issue for the county executive. But several other provisions in the proposed local law were. Poloncarz said he wanted another week to gather public input before deciding whether to support or veto the law.

But that decision meant chances were high his critics in the Legislature would have labeled him as anti-military for keeping the charter revision law off the ballot.

Then the news conference was announced. Poloncarz said his executive order would build on an existing county policy from 2002, make it easier for reservists to claim their county pay and expand benefits to those called up on both long- and short-term deployments.

What about its similarity to the charter revision recommendations?

“This is broader than what is in the charter revision. The charter revision doesn’t go far enough,” he said.

The news conference led to responses that generally debated the issue of who really cares about military service members, with several reactions including the words “playing politics”:

• Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, challenged Poloncarz’s authority to sign any executive order affecting the pay of personnel. That’s the Legislature’s job, he said. Lorigo pledged to introduce a separate, but similar, law that would safeguard and enhance pay for reservists.

“It is evident that by signing his ‘executive order’ today, the County Executive is doing what he does best — playing politics,” he said. “Rather than sign the approved charter revision law today to ensure it is placed on the ballot this November, the county executive is cherry picking positive ideas so that he can’t be criticized for not implementing them.”

• Republican Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who originally had asked the Charter Revision Commission to recommend full county pay for reservists called to active duty, also said he would now submit his own legislation to accomplish the same thing.

“It is unfortunate Mark Poloncarz is playing politics with the lives of active duty personnel and their families,” he said in a statement that dismissed the county executive’s order as a “misguided photo-op.”

• Legislature Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park, who has enjoyed a good working relationship with legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as with the county executive, interpreted Poloncarz’s actions as a personal affront. He said he worked with county executive to draft an acceptable compromise law that Poloncarz said he would sign in time for the ballot.

“The man told me he was going to do it, and he didn’t do it. I’m completely shocked. We’ve been working on this thing for seven months,” Mills said, referring to the work of both the Legislature and the volunteer Erie County Charter Revision Commission. “This is not good government.”

Poloncarz said legislators carry part of the blame for going on a long break in August and lumping all charter revision changes – some are more controversial than others – into a single law for him to approve.

He remained noncommittal Friday on whether he would sign or veto the charter revision law after gathering more public input. He said some individuals have threatened to sue the county over certain provisions in the law, and that some elements of the proposed law are illegal.

If he does eventually sign the law, voters would likely still have an opportunity to vote on it during next year’s general election.


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