A proposed new county law prohibiting appointees of Ulster County elected officials from holding elected positions within Ulster County was sent back to the county legislature’s Laws and Rules Committee with a vote of 15-6 at its Oct. 15 meeting.
According to the wording of the proposed law, which was co-sponsored by legislators Joe Maloney of Saugerties and Ken Ronk of Shawangunk, the bill’s intent is to “assist in avoiding any conflicts of interest, division of loyalty, and/or appearances of impropriety.” Currently, the only county employee who would be affected by this action is Dan Torres, the assistant deputy county executive, who also serves on the New Paltz Town Board. As such, Resolution 374 has been termed by many as the “Dan Torres Law.”
“You say it’s not about Dan Torres, but it’s kind of like when people say it’s not about the money — it’s about Dan Torres. If [Torres’ positions on the New Paltz Town Board and his position as assistant deputy county executive are] deemed a conflict, then the legislature should hold themselves to the same measures,” said New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez at the meeting, claiming five members of the legislature had similar conflicts. “I urge you to act before you embarrass yourselves more than you already have … this resolution stifles free speech … and ignores that several members of this legislature have the same conflicts.”
Bill co-author Ronk says the law is not specifically directed toward Torres. Ronk, who is the Mid-Hudson regional director of Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, said comparing the legislators who are employed by state and town governments was like “comparing apples and oranges,” as the law would apply just to non-union appointed officials.
“Both of the legislators that are employed in town positions have taken civil services tests for those positions — this law would specifically apply to non-union appointed officials. It would not apply to anyone who is tested into a position. That’s why that’s different,” said Ronk. “There’s three legislators that work for state government, of which I am one. There is a specific allowance that … allows local elected officials to serve for state legislators. There are specific sections of the employee handbook that, for me personally in my employment with the Assembly [that] talks about dual government employment. It has to be denoted on my financial disclosure … and needs to be approved by the Assembly counsel’s office.”
Ronk said the measure had been discussed for eight months before Torres was appointed to his position by County Executive Pat Ryan. While the law was not, Ronk said, directed specifically at Torres, he explained what he felt were possible conflicts of interest between his two positions.
“Important decisions are made at the county level, especially in the county executive’s office. Budgetary decisions and policy decisions that have a direct effect on the towns and could have a direct effect on the Town of New Paltz, either positive or negative. There’s no way for the general public to know that when a decision affecting the town of New Paltz is made that Mr. Torres is removing himself from the discussion points. How does anybody in any other town know that the decisions that are being made aren’t being influenced by a town council member from another town? Let’s say that the Town of Wawarsing is denied funding and New Paltz receives funding, how would the public know that it’s not because Dan Torres works there?”
Legislators who voted against sending the law back to committee were Ronk, Maloney, Heidi Haynes of Hurley-Marbletown, Rich Gerentine of Marlboro, Mary Beth Maio of Highland and Kevin Roberts of Plattekill. Legislator Kathy Nolan of Shandaken, who voted to bring the proposed legislation back to committee, said she felt that she would prefer to “let the voters determine if they want to elect someone with another position in government” rather than forbid it with legislation.
“We do not have our laws set up such that a person who is serving at one level of government is forbidden to serve at another level of government, except for higher levels of government like state and federal,” she said. “There are rules that come in to play and separate out so that someone who is at a high level making policies … isn’t implementing or acting on the same policies that they helped create. I think the position that Dan Torres holds is not directly a policymaking position. … [If that happens] he could step aside and his superiors could [not] assign him something that would put him in that conflict role,” Nolan said. “In my small town, there sometimes are not volunteers for some of the positions if we had excluded people who had been in some other position. There is some case law on that, that in appointed roles people can have more than one role.”
Deputy County Executive John Milgrim made the following statement on the behalf of the Ryan administration: “Dan is immensely talented and has an extensive record of public service in both county and local government, rooted in an enduring love for his community. Proposals that focus on political vendettas rather than good policy undercut the public’s faith in government.”
If the measure returns to the full legislature and is approved by lawmakers, it would have to be signed into law by Ryan. If Ryan vetoes the measure, the legislature could override that veto with a two-thirds majority.