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Erie County executive sees way to save improvements to charter

Political observers of county government were left wondering last week whether the months of work done by a volunteer committee to improve the Erie County Charter will just be flushed down the drain.

But County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Wednesday that there’s a way to salvage the situation.

Poloncarz believes that the County Legislature can still make meaningful reforms to county government even though he refused to sign a measure that would allow voters to cast ballots on charter changes in November.

The measure, which the Legislature passed, 9-1, would increase legislator terms from two to four years, dramatically expand the Board of Ethics, create a new process for drawing Legislature district boundaries, require more minorities and women to be interviewed for top county positions, and make it easier for elected officials to get raises.

Although the measure has been criticized by some as a Legislature power grab, resulting from flawed and overly politicized work by the Charter Revision Commission, the proposal also would make a number of necessary and technical changes to the charter to bring it up to date.

Poloncarz, citing the need for more public input despite multiple rounds of public hearings, has put off making a decision on whether to support or veto the measure. If he signs it into law, it would probably not go before voters for approval until November 2017.

But if he vetoes the measure, he said, there’s nothing preventing the County Legislature from adopting a new law that would keep most of the roughly 50 changes to the charter. No public referendum would be required as long as the Legislature does not include amendments that would change the powers of elected officials. That means the Legislature would have to dump the four-year-term provision.

Poloncarz also said the Legislature would have to change or delete language regarding the size and appointment process of ethics board members. Expanding the board from five members to 18, which is what the new law would require, is an apparent attempt to ensure that the panel is never able to meet again, he said.

“It’s bad policy,” Poloncarz said.

Finally, he criticized a provision in the charter revision proposal that he said would make it possible for legislators to raise even more money from limited liability corporations than they are allowed to now.

Poloncarz said he has no issue with legislators’ desire to move to four-year terms, but has many other problems with the proposal that the Legislature has refused to address. Legislators have accused Poloncarz of playing politics, going back on his word, and deliberately dragging his feet on the charter revision proposal so that the issue of four-year terms becomes a liability when legislators run for re-election next year.

If the county executive vetoes the charter revision proposal next week, Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said it’s likely the Legislature will move forward with a new local law that could be passed without a referendum. “He can expect a different law clocked in that gets rid of the four-year terms,” Lorigo said.

But Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, said lawmakers are in no hurry to act at this point. “I just don’t see it happening,” he said. “I think we need to take a long, deep breath and see where we are.”


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