Just when the Erie County Legislature seemed incapable of reaching new heights of ineptitude, it displayed another example of its deficiency.
Engaging in a bit of revisionist history, legislators, without comment, approved sanitized minutes of their late-night session of Dec. 8, when they rammed through a 2005 budget by choosing to ignore their own rules. Given the chance to make things right, they chose to keep what essentially amounts to an inaccurate record of events.
The record of what occurred that night makes no mention of the procedural errors that became the catalyst of a trio of lawsuits, one of which continues. West Seneca taxpayer Daniel Warren is determined to get his day in court if the legislators continue to fail to abide by the Open Meetings Law. Warren was able to get a State Supreme Court judge to agree that lawmakers violated that law on Dec. 8.
What occurred that night should be easy enough to document, especially since it was well covered by television and print journalists. That was the night that legislators raced against a midnight deadline to force a 2005 budget that would avoid the deep spending cuts included in County Executive Joel Giambra's "red budget." The budget that was approved eventually became moot when the Legislature failed to come up with 10 votes to request a penny increase in the sales tax, which was needed to fund the spending plan.
Republican Charles Swanick came up with an idea to ignore Legislature rules -- specifically, reading budget amendments aloud -- in order to speed approval. Reading the amendments would have helped lawmakers understand what they were voting on -- including pork and patronage -- but the tedious process would have meant missing the midnight deadline, and Giambra's red budget would become law.
Democratic Majority Leader Lynn Marinelli objected to Swanick's proposal -- although she had less qualms about breaking the Open Meetings Law in a closed negotiating session just an hour earlier. Chairman George Holt Jr. granted Swanick's motion and the $1.1 billion budget slid through. A draft version of the minutes never mentioned Marinelli's objection.
Four Erie County lawmakers, Republicans Denise Marshall, Barry Weinstein, Elise Cusack and Michael Ranzenhofer, have since switched their votes approving the minutes, saying they had not realized the minutes they were voting on included the Dec. 8 meeting.
Some county legislators and officials have said Marinelli's objection should have nullified the budget's adoption. However, State Supreme Court Justice John Lane, in his ruling, protected most of the budget.
Even though the county's 2005 budget has been adjusted and amended since that night, there is still no mention in the minutes about the objection from Marinelli. Nor did she try to ensure that the official version of events read as they occurred. She told reporters she just wanted to be registered as voting against the final budget on that night.
The official minutes of the Dec. 8 meeting, despite the vote switch of the four Republicans, remain approved on a 10-4 vote. The constituents of the 10 legislators should know that the people who represent them have no problem with approving a document that contains information they know to be incomplete and, worse, misleading.
Those lawmakers should be ashamed. Our guess is they are not, which speaks volumes about how this county got into the mess in which it now finds itself.