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Erie County officials agree to new ethics law, keep legislator terms at 2 years

After months of fighting, Erie County officials settled on changes to the County Charter that include dumping a provision to lengthen legislator terms to four years rather than the current two.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and legislative leaders also agreed on a new ethics law to increase transparency regarding elected officials who have relatives working in government. It also explicitly lists what types of gifts county officials could accept. Anything else above a nominal value would be prohibited.

Complimentary tickets to charitable events with food are permissible. So are honorary sports jerseys and college degrees, and promotional items such as pens, calendars, hats and T-shirts that have an organization or company logo on them but have “no substantial retail value.” Food and drinks worth $15 or less? Fine.

Although officials are not supposed to accept other types of gifts above a nominal value, the county’s financial-disclosure form does not require county officials to report gifts received unless they exceed $1,000 in value.

In addition, the proposed law would not include language limiting political contributions from individuals, businesses or limited liability corporations. County officials contend that such language could not legally supersede state laws regarding contribution limits.

County leaders said they expect little trouble in winning support for the changes to the charter and ethics law – winding down a seven-month, politically charged bureaucratic odyssey over many aspects of the charter, which dictates how county government is run. “It just goes to show what you can do when you work together,” said Poloncarz, who stood with Legislature majority and minority leaders in a rare show of solidarity.

“These are reforms we can all be proud of,” said Minority Leader Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst.

Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, credited Poloncarz for sitting down with him for 1½ hours Tuesday to reach compromises on the charter, as well as a new ethics law, both of which are being sent to the full Legislature for consideration.

The Legislature previously passed a charter-revision law that would have given legislators four-year terms, if voters approved, but Poloncarz refused to sign the measure in time for it to go to public referendum in November.

Poloncarz vetoed the charter-revision measure passed by the Legislature and worked on a compromise. The measure hammered out by Poloncarz and lawmakers would replace all prior ethics laws.

Among the key points of the proposed charter and ethics laws:

• The powers would not change for any government branches; therefore, it can be adopted without going to referendum. It does not include four-year terms for legislators or changes to how district lines are drawn, as some lawmakers wanted.

• It places all ethics provisions in a separate law that the Legislature must approve. While prior proposed versions of the charter would have expanded the Board of Ethics to 18 appointed members, the new ethics law leaves the ethics panel at five voting members appointed by the county executive and three nonvoting members who would include a county employee, and appointees of the county attorney and Legislature chairman.

• The ethics law would also require all elected county officials to disclose a list of family members “employed by any government organization in any capacity within the eight counties of Western New York.”

As with prior proposed laws, the new charter-revision law would also require more minorities and women to be interviewed for top county positions. It would also relax the conditions under which elected officials can be given raises.


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