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Erie County Charter proposals spur charges of partisan politics

Erie County legislators would serve four-year terms instead of two.

Elected officials could get raises more easily, even when the county collects more property tax money.

A new county planning board would curb major town projects considered harmful to the county’s sustainable growth.

These are just a few of the changes proposed for the Erie County Charter, the document that outlines how government operates. Every 10 years, a charter commission meets to assess what is working and what is not. It then recommends changes, which must be approved by the Legislature.

But this year, accusations of partisan politics are setting back the commission’s progress, despite a fast-approaching deadline.

The Charter Review Commission must vote on any final charter changes before dissolving May 15.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and some commission members are raising alarms about last-minute proposals designed to weaken the authority of the County Executive’s Office – currently controlled by a Democrat – while expanding the power of the Comptroller’s Office and the Legislature, both controlled by Republicans.

Several changes were suggested by Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, Republican legislators and town officials in consultation with the Republican chairman of the Charter Review Commission, Todd Aldinger.

“I’m just shocked, to tell you the truth, of the proposals that came down,” Poloncarz said. “It’s not a fair process. It’s not a transparent process.”

Aldinger, though, blamed the last-minute proposals on the fact that the Charter Review Commission was given just three months to complete the work, instead of nearly a year, like the last time the commission convened.

“My concern was that we were going to vote on nothing, because nothing was in legal form,” he said.

Among the last-minute proposals submitted without prior consideration by any of the Charter Review Commission’s three subcommittees:

• Abolishing the county executive’s budget division in favor of a new budget office that would answer jointly to the County Executive’s Office and the Legislature.

• Giving the comptroller and Legislature the power to impose budget quotas and other cost-control measures on the county executive.

• Shackling the county executive’s authority and firing power over the county attorney.

• Creating a new Regional Council, similar to the old Board of Supervisors, that would give town leaders power to recommend county laws and make appointments to an Erie County Planning Board.

Aldinger said he wrote the legal language for many of these proposals based on suggestions that came to him from other county officials. Those suggestions had to be put in a form that specified exactly what would be deleted from or added to the charter.

He added that he also wrote the legal language for many other proposals that he personally disagrees with but that were considered in subcommittees and deserve vetting by the full membership.

Many proposals considered by subcommittees were discussed, killed or approved based on no legal language that the commission could seriously consider.

Many commission members believed proposals voted down in subcommittees were essentially dead. But Aldinger said proposals that aren’t illegal and have even one member’s support will be sent to the full commission, along with subcommittee recommendations.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion right now,” said Diana Cihak, a subcommittee chairwoman. “We were working together in a bipartisan fashion to come up with real solutions. Now, I feel like what’s happened has made it very challenging for us to do good work.”

She said she appreciates the heavy lifting Aldinger has done and believes he’s listening to everyone’s concerns. But despite his attempts to be fair – including naming Democrats as subcommittee chairs, she said – many last-minute proposals before the commission are clearly partisan and should have been submitted to subcommittees for review much earlier. Each subcommittee is composed of three Republicans and three Democrats.

Poloncarz pointed out that Aldinger served as the campaign manager for Philip C. Kadet, Poloncarz’s opponent in the 2009 county comptroller’s race. Given the fact that county government is working fairly smoothly these days, he added, there is little reason for radical changes to how it operates.

“It’s arguable that anything they’re doing is legal,” he said. “Is this a sham commission?”

Aldinger said the county executive hasn’t spoken with him about any of his suggestions or concerns, unlike other elected officials. He also said the objections raised by Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte during Thursday’s public hearing are being taken seriously and will result in many amendments.

The commission’s responsibility should be to review as many good ideas as possible, Aldinger said, regardless of when they were submitted. He also said Poloncarz should let the commission do its work and wait to see what is finally recommended.

At the commission’s meeting on Thursday, subcommittee chairs divvied up the latest set of proposals for review. But commissioners expressed reservations about how thorough a vetting these proposals will receive when the full commission is expected to pass final recommendations by Thursday. Aldinger said Saturday that more special meetings are being scheduled for this week to give the commission more time to do its work.

Some major proposals have already been discussed in subcommittees. They include:

• Lengthening county legislator terms from two years to four years, in conjunction with a new redistricting process, to give legislators more time to focus on governance than the politicking associated with re-election every two years .

• Multiple proposals designed to make it easier to give elected officials raises, even when the county increases the amount of taxes it collects from property owners. Elected county officials have not received raises in many years due to stringent charter language and the political pressure the Legislature faces to deny raises to elected leaders.

Proposals adopted by the 19-member Charter Review Commission will go to the County Legislature, which would hold another public hearing before deciding which recommendations to accept or reject.

All proposals before the Charter Review Commission are available on the commission’s website.

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Aldinger said of the commission’s decision. “We’re going to find out what 10 people can support.”