A proposed law prohibiting appointees of county elected officials from themselves holding elected offices in Ulster County was approved by a 12-11 vote at the legislature’s Nov. 19 meeting.
But County Executive Pat Ryan on Tuesday, November 26 vetoed the measure, which has — intentionally or not — been taken as an attack on Assistant Deputy County Executive Dan Torres, who’s also a New Paltz town councilman.
According to the wording of the law, sponsored by legislators Ken Ronk of Shawangunk and Joe Maloney of Saugerties, the “Ulster County Legislature believes that prohibiting appointees of county elected officials from holding any such elective public offices would directly protect Ulster County residents by ensuring Ulster County departments and agencies operate to advance first the best interests of Ulster County to the exclusion of the interests of other local governmental entities.”
In his veto message, Ryan said he’s committed to working on ethics and process issues, but that this piece of legislation wasn’t the right way to do it.
“As an effort to improve public policy, this legislation falls disappointingly short,” Ryan wrote. “While veiled as a conflict resolution measure, the rich irony of the resolution’s primary author being a similarly placed appointee of a statewide official in the state Assembly while holding elected public office cannot be ignored. … Moreover, under our County Charter, this resolution stands as an overreach by the resolution’s authors to the unfettered authority of the executive and other countywide officials to appoint the best and brightest candidates as they see fit. … I remain committed to engaging with the Legislature to develop and adhere to policies that increase the public’s faith in government and which all our constituents can view as a model of good governance. As for the measure at issue, setting a different standard for the author than for others in public service does not withstand scrutiny.”
While Ronk himself works in an appointed position as the Mid-Hudson regional director of Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, he said in October when the law was first proposed that comparing his potential conflict of interest with Torres’ situation was like “comparing apples and oranges,” as the law would apply only to non-union appointed officials. Also exempted are those serving on fire, school and library district boards, as well as those serving in unpaid positions.
“Important decisions are made at the county level, especially in the county executive’s office,” Ronk said last month. “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.”
In the wake of Ryan’s expected veto, the legislature could override it with a two-thirds majority. Speculating in advance that it might get vetoed, Ronk said last week that he would “absolutely” move for an override.
Criticism of the law
The law was blasted last week by Gerry Benjamin, longtime SUNY New Paltz professor and dean and current director of the eponymous Benjamin Center, as well as the primary mover behind the current county charter.
Speaking on Hillary Harvey’s “The Source” show on Radio Kingston on Nov. 15, Benjamin said: “Government service attracts people who are interested in government; diminishing the pool of potential elected officials by excluding these people from office at a time when there is increasing skepticism about such service seems unwise. In many New York counties, the structure of government requires county elected officials to hold elected positions in two governments: town supervisor and member of the county board of supervisors. By implication, this is an endorsement of the practice in state law — or at least acknowledgement that it is not presumptively one that creates a conflict of interest.”
“I was uncomfortable voting yes for it,” said legislature Majority Leader John Heppner, D-Woodstock, who voted no. “There were a lot of good points made, but it seemed to me an abrupt resolution. … I shared concerns of the politics surrounding this, the history surrounding this.”
“I don’t see any constituents coming asking us to do this restriction, as has been noted by one of the speakers, we have many members of this body that serve at multiple levels of government and we seem to make that work,” said Legislator Kathy Nolan, D-Shandaken, who also voted no. “I come from a large rural district and we often have trouble finding people to come forward [for positions]. A law like this would not help us. [We should not] fix something that is not a problem. If we were to do this, we should do it in a more careful way.”
Legislator Lynn Eckert, D-Kingston, hailed Ryan’s veto and blasted outgoing Legislator Hector Rodriguez, D-New Paltz, for not recusing himself. Torres played a part in the investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Rodriguez, for which the legislature last week censured Rodriguez.
“In passing this ill-considered law, the legislature looks like it’s engaged in the petty politics of personal vendetta rather than good government,” said Eckert. “The deciding vote on this piece of legislation was cast by someone who was in a position to retaliate against this employee. That employee had been instrumental in bringing to light sexual harassment allegations against this particular legislator. Under the circumstances, Legislator Rodriguez should have recused himself from the vote.”
Maloney said the law was a prime example of good government: “I’m going to be a yes on this, and I would’ve been a yes on this no matter who was in any position.”