County Democrats Seek to Repeal Voter Rights

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 11, 2011                                                                  Westchester County Board of Legislators Republican Caucus

Last week, County Legislator John Nonna proposed legislation that would repeal section 209.161 of the Westchester County Charter, which would eliminate the requirement that certain amendments to the Charter be approved by a mandatory referendum by the voters of Westchester County.  Legislator Nonna’s proposal would deny the people of Westchester County a vote in the following fundamental changes to our Charter:

1.    create or eliminate an elective office.
2.    change the fundamental powers of voting or veto of an elected position.
3.    change the method to remove an officeholder.
4.    change the form of the county government or create a new form of county government.

The Republican members of the Board of Legislators maintain that an effort to strip the voters of these most basic provisions of our government is troubling and unprecedented.  The mandatory referendum requirement has been the law in our County for 63 years and no legislature has ever tried to remove it.  There are already too few opportunities for the public to have a direct voice in the legislative process.  Further, we believe the mandatory referendum law is a form of checks and balances granted to the people of Westchester to stop irresponsible changes to the County Charter.  We are concerned that principles set forth in the Charter that have stood for 75 years could be easily amended without a vote by Westchester’s residents.

The Republican caucus urges Legislator Nonna and the other legislators supporting this complex proposal to slow-down the process of repealing this important public voting provision.  In the spirit of section 209.161, we insist that the public be given ample time and opportunity to address the potential loss of their voting rights in this proposition.  Rushing this legislation is bad precedent, bad policymaking and raises important legal issues that need full vetting.

A legal opinion from County Attorney Robert Meehan reviewed section 209.161, as well as section 199.61, which Legislator Nonna cites as the section that supersedes the mandatory referendum requirement.  The County Attorney’s opinion disputes Legislator Nonna’s interpretation of these two sections in the Charter.  According to the County Attorney, these two sections do not conflict.  In fact, the County Attorney points out that the same governing body that ratified section 199.61, within one year went on to strengthen the foundations of the mandatory referendum law.

Legislator Nonna has indicated in a recent memo that the original time frame he proposed may not be sufficient and that he would allow for a more reasonable period for public comment and full legal vetting by the Legislation Committee.  While the Republican caucus appreciates that Legislator Nonna will provide a more substantive review of this historic change to the County Charter, we cannot expect any circumstance where we would ever support the elimination of the mandatory referendum requirement of the County Charter.  We question whether this repeal of the voting rights reserved for the people of Westchester should even be considered, and believe that the Board of Legislators has more important issues to address.

This move stems from the ongoing debate regarding proposed changes to the County’s A & C Board. Legislation to reform the A&C Board has been championed by Republican Legislators throughout the past decade. Republican legislators have always understood that any Charter Change made to the A&C Board would require a mandatory referendum. If section 209.161 is removed from the Charter, as Legislator Nonna and several members of the legislation committee are suggesting, a mandatory referendum would no longer be required and the majority could quickly push through these amendments without public scrutiny and as well as other changes to the County Charter.

The following is Section 209.161 which Legislator Nonna seeks to eliminate: The portion of the charter that Mr. Nonna would like to repeal states, “No local law shall become operative or effective unless and until the same is adopted by the affirmative vote of a majority of the qualified electors of the county voting on a proposition for its approval at the next general election held not less than 90 days after the adoption thereof, if it abolishes or creates an elective office; changes the voting or veto power of, or the method of removing, an elective officer; changes the term of office or reduces the salary of an elective officer during his term of office; abolishes, transfers or curtails any power of an elective officer; changes the form or composition of the elective governing body of the county; or provides a new form of government for such county.”

About Legislator John G. Testa

John G. Testa, a life-long resident of Peekskill, began his first term on the Westchester County Legislature in January 2010. Prior to his successful run for the District 1 Legislative seat, he served 3 terms as Mayor of Peekskill from January 2002 until December 2007. Before becoming mayor he also served a four-year term as a Councilman. From his first days in office Testa worked tirelessly to set the City on the path of economic stability. Peekskill flourished under this plan, increasing the city fund balance to its highest in history. During John’s tenure in office, the NY State Comptroller’s Office named Peekskill one of the most fiscally sound municipalities in the State; independent auditors proclaimed Peekskill as being in its best fiscal condition in over 30 years; and Moody’s Investor Service agreed to upgrade its bond rating, resulting in further savings. The plan he put in place was so successful that it enabled the City of Peekskill to pass three budgets in a row with a 0% tax increase. These fiscal skills will prove valuable to Testa as he works to put the brakes on what has been wildly escalating county spending and unchecked government growth. He has pledged his efforts to work to consolidate services, eliminate wasteful spending and improve efficiency. In addition to the fiscal conservatism that served Peekskill so well, Testa worked to promote the city, attracting investment, jobs and an increased tax base. Over $100 million of private investment came to Peekskill in the forms of new residential construction, retail space, and the redevelopment of historic structures. As Mayor, Testa led a successful battle to stop the unfair and unsafe plan to send sewage to the Peekskill plant from outside the sewage/water district. John’s roots are deep within the soil of Northern Westchester. His father’s family has lived here for more than a century and his mother’s family is nearing that mark. He is proud that he was born in Peekskill and has lived and worked here all his life and, with his wife Nancy raised their two children here.
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