Problems found in county charter

By HEATHER NELLIS

Recorder News Staff

FONDA -- A New York State Association of Counties' analysis of the Montgomery County charter revealed typographical errors, inconsistencies, and what they deemed unnecessary language in the document.

Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of NYSAC, said he spent between 50 and 60 hours reviewing the charter. On Tuesday, Acquario and Assistant Counsel Patrick Cummings presented a list of suggestions for possible amendments to the Board of Supervisors Education and Government Committee.

"We didn't know if that's what you really meant," or "We don't know if you meant to do that," were Acquario's repeated comments on multiple points in the charter.

Acquario said there are issues with the section on amending the charter.

The document says an amendment may be proposed by a member of the county legislature, the county executive, or the legislative bodies of any of the towns or villages of the county.

"It blocks the city," said Acquario, "and the language is inconsistent with other county charters, and state law."

"I don't think it's the right thing for people of Montgomery County," Acquario continued. "It's absurd. The county knows no boundaries or districts -- you're supposed to be acting on behalf of the county as a whole."

Acquario said it can be simplified by simply removing that language to stress the provisions of the municipal home rule law.

Acquario reviewed an outline of the charter's defined budget process, pointing to dates of March 1 for the county executive's annual financial report to the legislature, and March 15 for the State of the County address.

"I don't foresee us being able to comply with that part of the charter," said St. Johnsville Supervisor Dominick Stagliano, who's campaigning for the county executive post. "We never know how we finish the [prior] year until May 1, because that's when the [Annual Update Document] is complete. When you start late on the first quarter, it kicks us back on the rest."

Acquario then said the term limits for legislators seem unclear. He said it should define whether or not the term limit applies to a certain district in the event the legislator moves someday after reaching the maximum term limit.

He also pointed to a provision for a three-year term for the legislature's clerk.

"In most counties, it doesn't work like that," Acquario said, adding that clerks are usually appointed at the beginning of a year, so a three-year term is like a guaranteed contract for the work.

On the section which defines the county executive, Acquario had multiple issues, several in which the role was "muddled" with that of the elected treasurer. He said the charter is clear in its intent for the executive to be the county's chief fiscal officer, yet several functions list the treasurer and executive to be responsible for them.

"We found it to be unnecessary," Acquario said. "It creates confusion."

Stagliano said that could be because the commission originally intended to switch the elected treasurer post to a controller appointed by the executive. At the last minute, the commission opted to keep the treasurer's post, so throughout the charter, the term "controller" was switched to "treasurer," though the implications likely weren't considered.

"The controller would have been an appointee of executive, so everything flowed in the charter," said Stagliano.

Acquario recommended there be a change in how the executive's salary is increased. Under the way the charter is written, the executive would have to budget an increase during his or her campaign for a second or third term.

"I don't think it's fair to do to someone after four, eight, or 12 years of service," he said. "I suggest a schedule based on years of service."

The charter says the executive can hire assistants and employees as authorized by the legislature.

"That's not what it should read," Acquario said. "It should say it's subject to available appropriation, because you control the purse strings on the board."

The charter also says the executive shall enforce all laws as adopted by the legislature, but that doesn't account for an executive veto.

"I don't know if that's exactly what you meant. I suggest that it says 'execute all laws and resolutions of which he or she approves, or overridden by the legislature,'" Acquario said.

Acquario also found a section of the charter unusual because it would prompt two public hearings for each local law. He said that could be streamlined under a process the county already follows that has just one public hearing.

Board Chairman and Root Supervisor John Thayer pointed out the charter commission used a copy of the Putnam County charter while crafting Montgomery County's.

"Most counties don't do this," Acquario said. "It's an unusual thing that Putnam County did."

The document also refers to a line item that does not currently exist in the county's budget, and one section includes a typographical error. In parentheses, it says, "need to check on this," suggesting a note a Charter Commission member might have added but never removed from the final document.

Officials said the problems that have reared shouldn't reflect on the Charter Commission.

"Let's not forget it was put together in a tight vacuum of time in early 2012," said county Attorney Douglas Landon. "And as it turns out, there are arguable omissions and errors and inconsistencies."

"There's no blame to cast here," Acquario said. "It was a complicated transitional process of moving from a board committee structure to separate branches of government, and that was a tough thing to do."