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Nicole Antonucci/Recorder staff County officials discuss charter revisions with NYSAC representatives at a meeting in the county annex building, Thursday.


State guides county on amending charter

Friday, May 09, 2014 - Updated: 10:22 AM


FONDA -- Montgomery County officials got a little more clarity Thursday on how to proceed with amending the county charter and maintaining checks and balances

Members of the county legislature and Executive Matthew Ossenfort sat down with officials from the state Association of Counties at the county annex building Thursday to get answers regarding the powers of elected officials that have been left to interpretation in the charter.

"We have areas that are black and white which I don't think we should touch but I want to find the grey areas and figure them out," Legislative Chairman Thomas Quackenbush said. "I want to walk away in three years knowing I left the government with a guide that is clear."

Those in attendance included legislators Martin Kelly, Barbara Wheeler, Terry Bieniek, Ryan Weitz and Quackenbush along with County Attorney Douglas Landon, County Clerk Cheryl Reese and Communications Specialist Andrew Santillo.

Amending the charter has been an ongoing discussion since last year when representatives from NYSAC pointed out operational issues in the language to the board of supervisors and made suggestions on how fix them.

Since taking over, the new county legislature has been reviewing the document but have only found more issues and questions. These were brought up to NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario and Assistant Counsel Patrick Cummings at the meeting.

Issues that were resolved quickly included questions raised at the county Education and Government committee meeting last month's including whether there should be educational requirements for elected and appointed officials and department heads.

The committee was at odds last month, with some agreeing that there should be requirements and others against it, stating it would limit the people who were qualified through experience.

Acquario suggested that educational requirements should not be put in the charter. Rather it should be a decision of the personnel committee, which has to review any appointments or candidates being elected.

Another resolved issue was whether the county attorney should be able to have jobs outside the county, which according to the charter right now, he can't.

"Other municipalities are mad at us because they want to hire Landon as their attorney," Quackenbush said.

Acquario said he didn't understand why it was in the charter and suggested that it also be changed.

While the county was able to resolve these issues, many more are still up for debate.

Weitz said the two major issues that the board needed clarification on is the amendment process and supercession.

Weitz explained that according to the charter, any amendments have to be done through local law with a supermajority or two-thirds vote or by referendum. However, there are some with the opinion that only a simple majority.

In terms of supercession, Weitz asked when state law trumps county law or when the charter steps in.

Acquario said that the purpose of the charter is to provide a set of laws separate from the state that the county is limited to.

"You are setting yourself apart from the state law. So the charter supersedes anything having to do with the administration of the county," Acquario said. "If it is not in the charter, then it goes back to state law."

Legislators also sought clarity on which branch of government had the power over appointments and contracts, referring to specific incidents occurring in the county right now.

For example, the appointment of a new weights and measures director is up for debate after it was left vacant last week when Nicholas Bartosik retired.

Acquario said the executive would appoint and the legislature would then have to confirm. Legislators questioned what should happen if the appointment was rejected but Acquario said the executive would name an acting person until a new appointment was confirmed.

In terms of contracts and agreements, Acquario said some of the issues depended on the circumstances involved. If there were appropriations involved, then the legislature was involved.

"Not everything is black and white," he said. "Its why there is checks and balances. The executive proposes the budget and the legislature appropriates. The executive proposes appointments and the legislature confirms. That is how it works."

The group also discussed the timeline for the charter amendments.

Landon and Quackenbush raised concerns about moving forward with amendments this year, stating that they had only until June to sort through changes that would need the public's vote.

Weitz, however, said that if the board waited until 2015, it was another year that they would have to work with the charter currently in place.

Acquario also suggested that the legislature put together a charter review commission who could go over the amendments and then present them to the board. NYSAC will continue to work with the county as they move forward.

"It's going to be hard work but its going to be fun and its going to make for more efficient government," Cummings said.


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