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Work on amending county charter continues in Fonda

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 - Updated: 10:20 AM


FONDA -- Powers over contracts, appointments and the Montgomery County attorney were the latest topics tackled by county officials as they move forward with amending the county charter.

It was recommended to officials Monday that they take their time and wait until next year before trying to get revisions on the ballot for voters consideration.

Legislators and Executive Matthew Ossenfort sat down with officials from the state Association of Counties at the annex building Monday to get answers regarding the powers of elected officials, which have been left to interpretation.

"A lot of this stuff is gray, and ultimately up to you to try to define and determine how you want to move forward," NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario said, adding that his recommendations are just opinions. "We are just trying to offer guidance on what other counties are doing. We are here to help."

Acquario and special counsel Patrick Cummings attempted to provide some answers to questions that had been posed during a previous meeting in May.

One of the topics discussed was who has authority over contracts; an issue that the legislature and Ossenfort have discussed on several occasions.

Cummings said the county executive has the power over general service contracts, which is outlined in the procurement policy that was adopted in April.

Other contracts, such as intermunicipal agreements and real property and leases, is under the control of the legislature. Most business concerning real property and shared services is subject to appropriations, which the legislature handles in its control over the county budget.

Officials also talked about who has power over appointments, but that was a little more difficult to define, officials said.

"You are going to have to talk this one out," Acquario said. "You should come up with a process."

Acquario said the charter is relatively clear that the executive has 60 days to bring appointments before the legislature for final approval. However, the issue lies in if the legislature rejects the appointment.

Cummings said the legislature has to allow the executive to fill the position with an acting hire until a final appointment is made.

"To make sure that the acting person doesn't become permanent, the executive has to come before the legislature with a new candidate in 'X' amount of days," he said.

Acquario said minor appointments should be made by the executive, but District 5 Legislator Terry Bieniek raised concerns about this.

"Is there a review process?" he asked. "Say I get a list of appointments. How do I know who they are?"

Acquario said the legislature has to trust the executive.

"The county executive should not have to go to the legislature on every appointment," he said. "You have to decide which appointments do, and which don't."

Acquario suggested the appointments made by the defunct board of supervisors are appointments that should be made by the legislature. Appointments that were made by a chief executive officer go to the county executive.

The group also talked about which branch of government the county attorney represents in case of a conflict between the legislature and the executive.

Under the charter, the attorney would represent the legislature, and would allow the executive to hire outside representation. However, Cummings recommended that it be switched so the attorney represents the county executive.

"You would be putting the executive in a position where the legislature has the power over who represents him," Cummings said, adding that it could present an issue. "It's much easier if the county attorney represents the executive, and county legislature seeks outside counsel, since the board has appropriations power."

With clarification on powers and duties between the two branches of government, legislators said they feel better about moving forward with the amendment process.

"The past two hours has clarified so much," District 4 Legislator Ryan Weitz said. "It's going to make the amendments to the charter much more thorough."

Officials talked about whether charter amendments require a two-thirds vote by the county legislature, and whether they are subject to a referendum.

Cummings said as long as the amendment does not impact a duty or power of an elected official, then amendments can be passed through adoption of a local law with a simple majority vote.

If the amendment does impact a power or duty, then the local law is subject to referendum, he said.

Cummings recommended the legislature proceed with a permissive referendum. He said if the legislature would approves the law, which would then go to Ossenfort's office for review and veto, if necessary.

For a permissive referendum, the public has 45 days to sign a petition for a mandatory referendum. If 5 percent of the public signs the petition then the amendment goes to a mandatory referendum in November.

Officials then talked about the revision timeline, and when the legislature should proceed with amendments. Cummings recommended that the county start in mid-spring 2015 to allow enough time for review.

Besides not having enough time this year, Acquario said this is the first year for the legislature.

"You are in a period of transition, which is why we told you to wait until 2015," Acquario said. "You want to see how things go and how they work this year."

Amending the charter has been an ongoing discussion since it was first approved by voters in the November 2012 general election.

After its adoption, representatives from NYSAC pointed out operational issues in the language to the board of supervisors, and made suggestions on how fix them.

Those in attendance Monday included legislators Martin Kelly, Barbara Wheeler, Bieniek, Weitz, county attorney Douglas Landon, clerk of the legislature Cheryl Reese, legislative research specialist Jacki Meola, and spokesman Andrew Santillo.

NYSAC will continue to work with the county as it moves forward. Future meetings will be held to answer additional questions that may arise.


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