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Ruling awaited in case alleging violation of open-meetings law

A judge has reserved decision on the attempt by Daniel T. Warren, a computer programmer and part-time paralegal student, to sanction the Erie County Legislature, which Warren claims violated the state's Open Meetings Law by holding closed-door strategy sessions on the county's budget crisis.

State Supreme Court Justice John P. Lane, who is expected to issue a ruling by late next month, has given Warren and George M. Zimmerman, first deputy county attorney, until Jan. 6 to submit briefs.

At the request of Warren, who is not a lawyer, Lane conducted a non-jury trial, taking testimony Dec. 16 and completing the trial with testimony Thursday by County Legislator Barry A. Weinstein, R-Amherst.

Weinstein testified that State Supreme Court Justice Joseph M. Makowski, who ordered the two-day session last February, had called it "a judicial exception" to the Open Meetings Law requiring discussions of issues affecting taxpayers to be open to the public.

Weinstein testified that the sessions with Makowski in the judge's courtroom and at Medaille College had included "very little fruitful discussion" and "broke up."

Weinstein told Lane the talks "actually deteriorated" into a non-event because of the lack of agreement among lawmakers and court-assigned budget mediators about how to deal with the county's fiscal problems.

A similar meeting, involving area members of the State Legislature, was held last March in the downtown Buffalo office of Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, but no more than seven Erie County legislators were present at any one time, Weinstein testified.

The state's Open Meetings Law applies to any meeting involving at least eight legislators.

Zimmermann declined comment after Thursday's the court session.

Warren said he was seeking a permanent injunction barring the County Legislature from ever again violating the Open Meetings Law.

Last January, Lane ruled that 10 members of the County Legislature had violated the statute Dec. 8, 2004, when they met behind closed doors to work out a budget that had to be enacted by midnight that day.

But Lane did not sanction the Legislature or void that budget deal, ruling merely that Warren could continue his lawsuit seeking an injunction to prohibit future violations.

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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