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DEMOCRATIC SUIT CALLS CLOSED MEETING OF LEGISLATURE MAJORITY CAUCUS ILLEGAL

A process server hired by the Democratic Party entered a closed session of the Niagara County Legislature's majority caucus Wednesday and served all 13 members with a lawsuit calling the meeting illegal.

The suit, filed Monday in State Supreme Court, asks for a judge to declare that the caucus, which contains enrolled members of three political parties, violates the state Open Meetings Law. That law allows closed-door party caucuses, but the Democrats insist it envisions all the members being of the same party.

The 13-member majority caucus includes nine Republicans, three Democrats and a Conservative. State law says caucuses may consist of party members or "adherents," and the Republicans claim the three Democrats and the Conservative caucusing with them are "adherents" because all ran on the GOP line last year.

The suit seeks a ban on further closed meetings of the majority caucus.

Also, if the Democrats win the suit, the Republicans would have to pay their court costs and legal expenses.

Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, said he expects an attorney will be paid out of the Republican Party's coffers to defend the suit, a reply to which is due in 20 days.

"The county attorney is part of the suit," said Needler, noting that the county itself is also listed as a defendant. "I guess I have to go out and find a lawyer."

Legislator Peter E. Smolinski, R-North Tonawanda, charged the suit is a waste of taxpayers' money. He estimated it will cost $7,000 to $10,000 to defend.

But County Attorney Claude A. Joerg wasn't sure if an outside lawyer would be hired by the county. Needler said the caucuses have been held since January.

"This should have been tried eight months ago if it was a problem," he said. "We had to dot our i's and cross our t's," said Legislator William M. Davignon, D-North Tonawanda. "We don't want to bring any frivolous lawsuits."

The Democrats' chairman, Charles J. Naughton, is an attorney who plans to argue the suit.

In another partisan dust-up, the Legislature voted along caucus lines to hold a public hearing Nov. 16 on a new law to require a majority vote of the full Legislature authority to fill any midterm vacancies in Legislature seats.

For the past two years, although it hasn't been used, the party caucuses have had that power. Democrats charge the GOP wants to keep control of the 1st District seat held by Steven A. D'Anna, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans.

Under the current law, the "regular" Democrats will choose his successor. D'Anna is out of town on his job most of the time, and the Democrats think he will resign once the new law takes effect.

D'Anna said he will consider his position after Jan. 1.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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