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Public input sought on proposed Erie County Charter changes

Would you like to offer your opinion on four-year terms for county legislators, an expanded Board of Ethics, or the push for greater diversity in county leadership?

These are a few of the many changes being considered for the Erie County Charter, which sets the rules for how county government operates.

The Erie County Legislature will hold a hearing at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Legislature Chambers of Old County Hall, 92 Franklin St.

The Charter Revision Commission approved 56 original recommendations for charter changes.

The Legislature ultimately approved 50 of the recommendations, though the more controversial recommendations passed in split voting. All the recommendations have now been packaged into a single proposed local law, requiring public input.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz and some Democratic commissioners expressed criticism of what they viewed as a politically biased process, and many recommendations were passed without full commission support.

Among the charter proposals the public can comment on:

• Longer legislator terms: The law would double the legislators’ terms of office from two years to four years, starting with next year’s elections. 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.

• Leadership diversity: Requires the county executive to interview minority and female candidates for department leadership positions.

• Expanded ethics board: The Legislature approved a recommendation to expand the county Board of Ethics to 18 members, from five, with many more elected officials, including all legislators, appointing members to the committee. Previously, all members were appointed by the county executive.

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. That makes raises for elected officials nearly impossible since 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. No raise would occur until the current term of an elected official has ended.

• County attorney autonomy: The county attorney could no longer be fired by the county executive alone without cause. Firing would require a request by the county executive and a majority vote by the Legislature. The goal of the recommendation is to make the county attorney less beholden to the favor of the county executive.

• Abolish 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.

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

After the public hearing, the local law is subject to final approval by the Legislature. Poloncarz would then have an opportunity to either sign or veto the law. A veto would require a Legislature supermajority to override. Assuming the law survives this process, the charter changes would come before the voters as a proposition this fall.

Click here to read the 51-page proposed local law.