The Erie County Legislature Redefines Dysfunction #ecleg (UPDATED)

23 Jul

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There’s dysfunction, and then there’s vaudevillian dysfunction.

The Erie County Legislature devolved into the latter during Thursday afternoon’s session.

Now, admittedly, I arrived late and left early, which means that I was the envy of everyone who had to be present. As I arrived, the legislature had just voted to send a bill to create a Community Corrections Advisory Board back to the Public Safety Committee, chaired by renegade Democrat Christina Bove.

But the real fun came when the legislature took up the issue of separation of powers.

When the 2010 budget was passed, the legislature made an appropriation of $15.6 million to Erie Community College. But that represented an increase of about $200,000 over the previous year’s budget. County Executive Chris Collins had vetoed that increase, and the legislature overrode that veto.

UPDATE: It isn’t even that cut & dry. Collins didn’t veto anything. While Republican legislators claim that the Democrats played shenanigans with the budget numbers and used that to create a phantom $200,000 out of whole cloth, (a) the ECFSA (control board) told them it was ok to do; (b) the Democrats admitted using what’s called the turnover account to fund some budget pieces, but they used it for the culturals – not ECC; and (c) part of the money used for culturals through the increase via the turnover account went for funding for the Colored Musicians’ Club, which is also known as the bribe that Chris Collins paid Barbara Miller-Williams to secure her obeisance in the leg on whatever Collins deems important.

End of story, right? Veto overidden, money goes to ECC.

Not so fast. This is Erie County.

Here, Chris Collins has refused to write a check for the $15.6 million the legislature appropriated. Collins has decided to disregard the legislature and the fact that it overrode his veto, and instead is simply refusing to pay more than he wants to pay. The legislature took up a resolution yesterday pledging to take whatever action is legally available to it to force Collins to do his duty under the county charter. Here’s how it appeared in the legislative agenda:

Pretty partisan, right? All Democrats, not one Republican. Not even the ones who are political science professors and teach kids about separation of powers and checks & balances all the time.

But what happened when this item was brought to the floor can only be described as chaos. It was like watching a pen of well-suited chickens with their heads cut off, appealing to the lawyers and parliamentarian on hand about the finer points of legislative procedure. There was vigorous debate, with most arguments centering around the dictatorial way in which Collins was behaving – that he was rendering the legislature useless and powerless. At one point, there was argument, disagreement, and confusion over whether a motion to recess had been approved. For real.

Although I’m as big a proponent of abolishing county government as exists, the existing rules and laws ought to be followed.

Legislator Betty Jean Grant argued that Collins doesn’t view the legislature as being a co-equal branch of government. Maria Whyte said that Collins was behaving like a dictator, and that his attitude was, “sue me if you don’t like it”.

But even more astonishing was the fact that two of the sponsors of the resolution – Christina Bove and Barbara Miller-Williams – voted against it. Right out of the Antoine Thompson school of bill advocacy, Bove said that mid-term budget review had shown a drop in sales tax revenue, so Collins’ thwarting of legislative will was justified. Barbara Miller-Williams said Collins had until August 31st to pay the entire appropriation, so the resolution was premature. A last-second effort by Maria Whyte to send the matter to committee was too late.

I was informed by at least a few people that Bove and Miller-Williams had met with or spoke with Collins earlier in the day and that something happened during that meeting to prompt them to vote against the resolution they had co-sponsored.

Ray Walter tweeted afterwards that a “few bad apples” were disrupting the sessions, and he lauded the defeat of the anti-Collins measure. But by letting Collins do whatever he wants, the legislature has set a precedent for itself to be rendered completely useless.

Abolishing the legislature is all well and good, but the selection of county executive as dictator needs to be done with that understanding. I hope the Republicans on the legislature don’t someday find themselves with a Democratic County Executive who decides to completely disregard what they pass.

But make no mistake – no matter what money was appropriated for infrastructure projects today (will Collins cut the check?) neither the words “good” nor “government” can fairly describe what the hell happened at the Legislature yesterday. It was an abomination – an embarrassment.

The leg is on hiatus now until September, but when they come back, make sure to follow #ecleg on Twitter.

The biggest regret was that there wasn’t a single reporter (Corr: Matt Spina was present for the Buffalo News.) or camera present in that chamber for that display. It was like watching grown men and women mimic a high school Model UN, and every country is a pariah state.

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11 Responses to “The Erie County Legislature Redefines Dysfunction #ecleg (UPDATED)”

  1. buffaloobserver July 23, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Sadly, this makes me long for days of Chuck Swanick as Chairman.

  2. Fat Tony July 23, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    The actual damage of this particular action is minimal, but the precedent is terrible and far-reaching. To me, this is again one more example of our government lurching toward becoming a banana republic. Whether it’s Paterson putting in an LG that was clearly illegal, but his hack on the court let it go or Collins just ignoring the charter, we are now making up the rules as we go along. Not exactly the best way to run a democracy.

  3. Ray Walter July 23, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    In the 2010 budget the Democrats added over $3million in addittional spending to the CE’s proposed budget. They did not raise taxes, or fees or make cuts anywhere else in the budget to off set this addittional spending. There was, however, a corresponding $3million increase in the “turnover account” (this is a budget line that estimates savings due to vacant positions that were budgeted for). If the Democrats had raised taxes or made real cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for their addittional spending the CE would have had no choice but to spend it. Instead, they created imaginary dollars and until those imaginary dollars materialize the CE should not spend them. The Dems like to hide behind the recomendation of the control board to justify the increase in the turnover account, but the reality is that the CE’s budget had already cut 200 vacant positions from the budget. In addittion not all vanancies are the same. If a position that is funded with only 30% County dollars is vacant, we only save 30% of the budgeted salary. Now that we are halfway through the year we see that the imaginary dollars are not materializng and the CE estimates were much closer than the control board and the Dems. It should also be noted that the Erie County Charter is not the US Constitution. We do not have equal branches of government. The Charter is set up with a very strong Executive who acts as the chief budget officer of the County. The Legislature’s time to excercise its authority is during the budget process and if it wants its authority respected it should take that power seriously and budget responsibly without the use of imaginary dollars.

    • Brian July 23, 2010 at 10:41 am #

      You disagree with the Democrats policy choice. You voted against that policy choice, but it was approved by a majority of Legislators. The County Executive vetoed that policy choice, but it was overridden by a super majority of Legislators. Voters will reward or punish you based on these votes. However, the issue at hand is the legality of the County Executive to ignore the Legislature’s vote. If the County Executive has a problem with the current budget because revenue lines aren’t meeting budgeted expectations, it is his job to submit to the Legislature corrective measures for their consideration. That is what Giambra did in 2005 when the budget was out of balance because the sales tax was not increased as planned within the budget.  Ray, you are in the bi-partisan coalition that controls the Legislature. Why can’t Chris Collins simply pass budget amendments if not for the cowardice of your coalition to make tough votes???

      • Ray Walter July 23, 2010 at 11:10 am #

        Irresponsible budgeting is not a policy choice. Creating imaginary dollars in a budget is not a policy choice. I actually agreed with and voted for spending more money on ECC and offered to work with the majority last year to find cuts to pay for it, my offer was ignored.

    • Joe Genco July 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

      Thank you Ray.

  4. Starbuck July 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    Explanations above from Ray Walter make a lot of sense regarding the unfunded spending additions and a CE’s charter-granted power as chief budget officer. If some day a Democrat CE refuses to spend unfunded additions added to a budget by an R-controlled legislature, that doesn’t sounds like a bad thing.

    Side note to Ray and others –
    If you want paragraphs or line breaks in comments here, try using Firefox. The return key seems to have no effect in comments on this site when using IE, so a whole comment ends up as one big paragraph.

  5. Ray Walter July 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    An additional thought about parliamentary procedure and the reported dysfunctional way in which the meetings are run. So What? Its procedure, it isn’t substance. A poorly run meeting isn’t a sign of dysfunctional government. Criticize what got done at the meeting (which you also did), but poor procedure does not equal dysfunctional government. If that meeting ran perfectly yesterday the substantive outcome would have been identical. The NYS Senate and Assembly both run procedurally perfect sessions but our state government is the poster child for dysfunction. No one is going to win an election on the issue of their mastery of Roberts Rules of Order.

    • Alan Bedenko July 23, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

      And because the Senate and Assembly run procedurally perfect sessions, their status as laughingstocks is not exponentially worsened. In other words, what happens substantively in the Erie County Legislature is bad enough – no need exists for it to resemble the Taiwanese parliament on a good day.

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