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Erie County charter panel removes ‘harsh proposals’ from report

A committee charged with reviewing and revamping how Erie County government works has proposed longer terms for legislators, looser conditions for giving elected officials raises, tougher ethics language and greater diversification of county leadership among other noteworthy recommendations.

The Erie County Charter Revision Commission, which convenes every 10 years, has proposed 55 changes to the Erie County charter. Though many of the changes represent minor wording adjustments, some would significantly alter how parts of Erie County government work.

A number of the more controversial proposals were killed or watered down by the commission.

The proposals now go before the County Legislature for consideration. Among them:

• Legislator terms: Lengthens county legislator terms from two years to four years, in conjunction with a new, more “independent” redistricting process.

• County attorney autonomy: The county attorney would still be a county executive appointee, but he or she would serve a fixed term that coincides with the county executive’s. The attorney could not be fired by the county executive without cause, or without a majority vote of the Legislature at the county executive’s request.

• Raises for elected officials: Makes it easier for elected officials to get raises by allowing raises to be granted if the budget’s property “tax rate” does not increase. The existing charter states that raises can only be given if the county does not collect more property tax revenue than the prior year. County officials typically raise taxes each year, but because county properties grow in value, the county can collect more taxes without increasing the tax rate. A separate recommendation states no raise would occur until the current term of an elected official has ended.

• Abolishing vacant positions: Eliminates any county employee position that has been vacant for more than a year to keep county executives from funding phantom positions designed to pad the budget and leave the county executive with extra year-end funds. One-year extensions may be granted by the Legislature on request.

• Leadership diversity: Requires the county executive to interview at least one minority or female candidate for department leadership positions.

• Ethics: Establishes an 18-member Board of Ethics, appointed by various elected leaders, as part of the county charter. The current Board of Ethics comprises six members, all appointed by the county executive. The recommendation also closes a campaign contribution loophole for limited liability corporations and would give the board more authority to propose ethics rules. The recommendation also requires county appointees to resign if they are convicted of a felony.

• Regional Council and Erie County Planning Board: Recommends a weak countywide planning board, governed by a new “Regional Council” composed of town supervisors and city mayors who would advise the county executive and Legislature on regional cooperation issues. County Executive Mark Poloncarz had sought a stronger countywide planning board with authority over local planning boards, but the commission didn’t support that.

Poloncarz and some Democratic members of the commission had criticized the work of the Charter Revision Commission and Todd Aldinger, the panel’s Republican chairman, for introducing last-minute proposals that were supported by a narrow, Republican-leaning majority. Aldinger pointed out, however, that most objections raised by Poloncarz were addressed, resulting in final proposals that were amended or killed by the commission.

“There were things that passed that I voted against,” Aldinger added.

Poloncarz objected to earlier proposals to abolish 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. He also criticized the notion of giving the comptroller and Legislature the power to impose budget quotas and other cost-control measures on the county executive.

The commission’s final recommendations did not include these ideas and others his office criticized.

“I didn’t agree with everything the Charter Revision Commission did, but I also believe many of the harsh proposals that were originally submitted were changed,” he said. “There was definitely, in the end, a better product.”

The Legislature now has 60 days to decide which recommendations it supports and will move to voter referendum in November. Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said preliminary discussions will begin Thursday.

“I don’t think there’s going to be blanket acceptance of everything or a blanket rejection of everything,” he said.