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Erie County legislators vote, 6-5, for four-year terms

Erie County voters might see a future in which they get inundated with fewer campaign ads and election mailers from county legislators every other year.

The Legislature voted, 6-5, Thursday for a proposal to double the legislators’ terms of office from two years to four years, starting with next year’s elections. But the term extension comes with strings attached.

To maintain four-year terms, the Legislature must abide by a new redistricting process that would redraw the lines of all legislative districts by 2021, through what some have touted as a less political procedure.

Legislators in favor of four-year terms praised the Charter Revision Commission recommendation as giving county leaders more time to focus on governing instead of constantly being distracted or fundraising for the next election. They also pointed out that no extension of term limits would occur without voter approval in a fall referendum.

“Ultimately, the voters will decide,” said Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca. “I believe they should have that right to decide.”

Legislators who opposed the measure said the two-year terms provide the best check on poor county governance and should remain as is.

The split vote did not fall along party lines. Members on both sides of the aisle voted for and against the resolution.

Those in favor included Lorigo; Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park; and Legislators Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda; Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst; and Patrick B. Burke and Betty Jean Grant, both D-Buffalo.

Those opposed included Legislators Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst; Barbara Miller-Williams and Peter J. Savage III, both D-Buffalo; Ted B. Morton, R-Depew; and Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg.

County legislators earn $42,588 a year.

The four-year terms hinge on a requirement that legislative district lines be redrawn under a new process after the 2020 U.S. Census.

That process requires the establishment of an 11-member Commission on Reapportionment. Legislators would only be able to directly appoint four of the 11 members, and the commission’s determination would be final.

Under previous redistricting efforts, in which an advisory committee submitted its recommendations back to the Legislature for approval, both legislators and the county executive tinkered with the commission recommendations for their own political advantage, resulting in a federal judge stepping in to draw final boundaries.

Todd J. Aldinger, who served as chairman of the Charter Revision Commission, said the new reapportionment process gives legislators some political influence at the start of the process but no political leverage at the end.

“They don’t have final say anymore,” Aldinger said. “It won’t be politically controlled from start to finish.”

Thursday’s vote was not the final one on this matter.

All recommendations from the Charter Revision Commission will be subject to public input and potential vetoes from the county executive.

Among other County Charter changes approved by the Legislature on Thursday:

County attorney autonomy – The county attorney would no longer be fired by the county executive alone. And the attorney could not be fired by the county executive without cause, or without a majority vote of the Legislature.

The recommendation passed along party lines, 6-5, as a result of dissatisfaction by the Republican-supported majority with recent actions by County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa.

Siragusa has been viewed as being a political tool of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

Expanding Ethics Board – The Legislature approved a recommendation to dramatically expand the county Board of Ethics to 18 members, from five, with many more elected officials, including all legislators, appointing members to the committee.

The recommendation also toughens penalties for ethics violations and closes the campaign contribution loophole for limited liability corporations.

Candidates for elective office may not accept more than $5,000 from any business entity in a calendar year.

Raises for elected officials – Makes it easier for elected officials to get raises by allowing them to be granted if the budget’s property “tax rate” does not increase.

The existing County 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 minority and female candidates for department leadership positions.

Full pay for staff in military – Grants full pay to county employees who are absent from work due to active duty military service.

All of the approved recommendations from the Charter Revision Commission will now be repackaged as a local law that would be subject to hearings and another round of voting.

Poloncarz would also have the ability to try and veto the law that the Legislature passes, which would then require a Legislature supermajority to override.

Assuming that the recommendations survive this process, they would come before the voters as a proposition this fall.

In other business, the Legislature approved:

• New hires to launch the county’s initiative to prevent lead poisoning.

• A law to mandate concussion safety training for youth coaches and referees.

• Erie Community College’s $108.5 million budget for the 2016-17 school year.