Hugh Reynolds: Did Mott mess it up?

Judicial discretion can take some curious turns. I wasn’t surprised when state Supreme Court Judge Richard Mott opted for the low-hanging fruit in the case of Elliott Auerbach versus Michael Hein and the Ulster County Legislature.

At issue was Comptroller Auerbach’s contention that County Executive Hein and the county legislature had illegally reduced his budget by about 12 percent for 2017. Auerbach, joined by elected comptrollers from Onondaga and Albany counties which had suffered similar fates at the hands of their respective, if not respectful, executives, asserted that the executive and the legislature had no authority to single out the independently elected comptroller for budget reduction far in excess of those imposed on other departments.

The easy way for the judge was to cite executive-legislative prerogative, which he did. Hein and the legislature were well within their rights as budget officers to cut Auerbach’s budget, he ruled. “Any remaining contentions have been rendered academic by this determination or are otherwise without merit,” the judge concluded. Case closed.

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I can’t say the judge missed the forest for the trees or ignored the far more substantial issue raised by plaintiffs, that an independently elected watchdog is no watchdog at all if he or she is subject to the whims — or ire — of those the office is supposed to be monitoring. In judicial terms, the judge was “silent” on that latter subject, finding “insufficient evidence of a concrete public interest.”

I thought SUNY political science professor Gerry Benjamin offered more than sufficient evidence, chapter and verse, on behalf of plaintiffs. The judge didn’t see it that way.

Democrat Hein and frequent ally Ken Ronk, Republican chairman of the legislature, stomped on Auerbach with all four feet, adding some sharp elbows. Supposedly acting independently, both called Auerbach’s lawsuit “frivolous” and a waste of taxpayers’ money. Legislature Ways and Means Chairman Rich Gerentine chimed in with similar remarks. Ronk and Gerentine were the only legislators to comment publicly. I wonder whether legislators might still be stewing over Auerbach’s challenging their mileage vouchers a few years ago.

 

There could be consequences

Caught up in the frivolity of it all, the alpha dogs apparently couldn’t resist revisiting past sins of the comptroller, like sending staffers to “beachfront” conferences at county expense. That those conferences were pre-approved by the executive and the legislature as part of the annual budget process was not mentioned.

Hein, Ronk and Gerentine also charged that Auerbach cost the county money by petitioning for legal expenses and court costs. In fact, the judge rejected that claim, which Auerbach didn’t file. To date, Auerbach said he’s paid his attorney, Michael Siegel of Wawarsing, $12,375.

Auerbach says he’ll only charge the county if he wins, which is beginning to look remote. That Auerbach’s lawsuit has cost the county cannot be denied. Late in 2016, the county engaged Cook, Tucker and Nettle, a Kingston law firm, for a fee of up to $10,000 to argue its case. It appears the well-staffed county attorney’s office does not represent one county department against another.

For Auerbach, there could be consequences. He’s up for nomination for a fourth term in less than two months. How might a Democratic county comptroller suing a Democratic county executive look at a Democratic nominating convention? Perhaps the comptroller could borrow Hein’s white horse and charge into the convention as the one independent voice in county government who isn’t afraid to take on the establishment.

Auerbach says he hasn’t decided whether to pursue an appeal. I think he should, this being a principle with potentially broad implications. That’s easy for me to say; I’m not on the hook for over $12,000 against all the king’s horses and all the king’s staff.

As we procrastinators can appreciate, even non-decisions can have consequences. Judge Mott, it would seem, has cleared the way for the executive and his legislative coterie to hack the comptroller’s budget at will. A literal reading of the county charter could conclude that the only position they are forced to fill (there are seven on staff now) is that of the comptroller himself.

 

State budget blues

For some 20 years, late state budgets, some running into mid-summer, didn’t matter. Content mattered, the participants claimed. After Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011, deadlines mattered. Meeting deadlines spoke to organization, efficiency and cooperation.

Now, deadlines don’t matter any more. Last week, the governor imposed a budget “extender” to the end of May. The choices extended by the chief executive were either to shut down the government or to remain at the negotiating table. Surprisingly, given the governor’s presumed national ambitions, the legislature blinked first.

I can only conclude that it doesn’t really matter at all. Que sera.

Meanwhile, legislators, but no one else in state government, will not get their pay until the budget is passed. For most legislators, that averages about $2,000 a week. They get their money back when a budget is passed.

If it’s any consolation to harried school superintendents charged with putting together their own budgets prior to mid-May referenda, state budget negotiations will resume in earnest after the Easter-Passover break.

 

Hitting 100

People are living longer these days. Hitting the century mark was once very special. No more. Centenarians still get a congratulatory letter from the president “upon request.”

Annette Finestone, widow of the legendary activist Max Finestone of Accord, marked  the milestone at her residence at Woodland Pond in New Paltz last week, visited by five-month-old great-granddaughter Celine. Max, an icon to liberal Democrats ranging from Maurice Hinchey to Kevin Cahill, died in 2011.

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Taking care of business

Craig Lopez, chairman of the county legislature’s Public Health and Social Services Committee, didn’t make it to the executive’s “ACA forum” at the county office building last month, but then neither did two-thirds of the legislature.

Lopez had a good excuse. “I had a previous commitment, a Narcan meeting in Walker Valley,” he told me, indicating that working on the local opiate epidemic was a higher priority for his committee than reforming national health care.

Lopez says he doesn’t know whether Obamacare will collapse or blow up, as some Republicans assert. “Depends on who you talk to. It’s something completely above my pay grade,” he said. He made no reference to Congressman John Faso.

Getting down to basics, Lopez, paralyzed as a teenager in a car accident, is offering legislation that would give business owners county tax credits for upgrading their properties to serve the handicapped. He expects passage with minimal fuss and negligible impact on county revenues. County property taxes account for only about 15 percent of the typical tax bill.

Lopez’s pay grade notwithstanding and for what it’s worth, I think his committee should get more involved in the current ACA debate. Anything that impacts a potential 20,000 people in the county deserves more than passing attention.