The battle over the openness of Niagara County Legislature meetings escalated Friday.
An attorney for the Legislature's majority caucus filed a motion in State Supreme Court to dismiss a Democratic lawsuit that says the caucus' closed meetings are illegal.
Edward P. Perlman, a lawyer paid by the county Republican Committee, included affidavits from three Democrats and a Conservative who caucus with the nine GOP legislators. The affidavits are meant to show that the non-Republicans are "adherents" to the GOP.
The Democrats' suit seeks to bar the majority caucus from meeting in private unless the non-Republicans are excluded. No judge has yet been assigned to the case, and no date for oral arguments has yet been set. State law allows closed party caucuses comprising members or adherents of a political party. County Democratic Chairman Charles J. Naughton, the attorney arguing the lawsuit on behalf of the Legislature's six "regular" Democrats, asserts that a caucus must consist of members of one party only.
Perlman, a former county attorney, said the state Open Meetings Law does not define what it means by "adherent."
"Generally, an adherent is a supporter of a particular cause," Perlman said. "No case law has decided this point. It's a case of first impression."
Naughton agreed, but his first impression is that the majority caucus' meetings are illegal. "I'm personally appalled that they're perverting the two-party system," Naughton said.
The affidavits written by Perlman and signed by Democratic Legislators Steven A. D'Anna, Rebecca E. Cuddahee and Danny W. Sklarski and Conservative Legislator William L. Ross, all of Niagara Falls, note that they were elected as GOP nominees and find the GOP caucus more agreeable to them politically and personally than the Democratic side.
The affidavits of D'Anna, Cuddahee and Sklarski point out that they won Democratic primaries against candidates favored by Democratic leaders, enabling them to appear on both major-party ballot lines last November.
An affidavit by Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, states that "Legislators Ross, Sklarski, D'Anna and Cuddahee, although independent-minded, have demonstrated that they support the agenda and programs of the Republican caucus. They are, certainly, welcome to remain as members of our caucus."
Needler's document said Legislator Kyle R. Andrews of Wilson, another Democrat, was asked to join the majority caucus but declined.
Ross, the Legislature chairman and the only Conservative in the body, asserted that if the Democrats win the case, he would not be allowed to join either caucus. "I would effectively be denied a forum to exchange my political views," Ross' statement said.
"That's not true. They can declare their views openly in a public meeting," Naughton said. "These arguments are circular and disingenuous. . . . They can't have meetings in a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon and decide how it's going to go in the next open Legislature meeting."