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Another Voice: Secret work of Erie County Charter Revision Commission violates need for transparency

By Mark C. Poloncarz

Many Erie County residents may not be aware that the County Charter – our constitution – requires that the County Legislature create a Charter Revision Commission every 10 years to review and, if necessary, revise the charter.

The new commission was empaneled in January. It has held 24 meetings so far; however, essentially no members of the public or media have attended these meetings.

For several months, the commission has publicly deliberated minor amendments submitted by my administration and other county elected officials. However, something more ominous appears to have been happening behind closed doors and away from the public’s view.

Without public input and lacking prior disclosure, proposals are being made by some commissioners and by the commission chairman to reverse reforms passed in 2006 designed to promote responsible county government. These proposals would obliterate our system of checks and balances. Only now, after months of work, are these secretive amendments coming to light as the commission prepares to take its final votes on Tuesday and Thursday.

For example, the amendments propose a “regional council” – a new layer of government – that would include all town supervisors and city mayors. This new government would have a paid staff and would have power to compel local governments to pay “dues” to participate, and to force the Legislature to act on its recommendations.

Furthermore, federal law requires a “one person, one vote” standard based on population, but with this proposal voting power among regional council members would be weighted based on registered voters, not people, thereby stripping power from communities with fewer voters. This proposal takes us back to the time of the old board of supervisors and would inevitably lead to conflict between large and small communities, cities and suburbs.

Additionally, these eleventh-hour proposals would extend county legislators’ terms from two years to four, yet weaken the executive branch by turning over control of the county’s Budget and Attorney’s Offices to the Legislature. It also would eliminate the Citizens’ Budget Review Commission. If adopted, these amendments would consolidate the power to manage a $1.7 billion government in a Legislature that meets only once a week.

It is surprising to see such a blatant disregard for our system of checks and balances at a time when county government is working well, but also appalling because these proposals were drafted in secret, without disclosure until the last minute. The commission chairman pledged to have a transparent process, but instead has deliberately drafted amendments for a vote without any discussion, debate or public scrutiny. County residents deserve better.

Mark C. Poloncarz is Erie County executive.