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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