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 John G. Testa

Former District 1 County Legislator, John G. Testa is served five terms at the Westchester County Board of Legislators, spending the last 3 terms as BOL Minority Leader. John G. Testa is a lifelong resident of Peekskill who first entered elected public service as a member of the Peekskill Common Council in 1998 and then served three terms as Mayor. He previously served on the Conservation and Parks Advisory Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. John became an elected official eager to improve the City in which his family has lived for more than a century and quickly earned a reputation as a strong, independent, nonpartisan voice for fiscal responsibility. John received a BS degree in Technology from SUNY Oswego, where his academic achievements gained him induction into Epsilon Pi Tau, the International Honorary Fraternity of Technology. He earned his MS degree in Technology from the City College of New York. He began his teaching career in 1980 at Peekskill High School, his alma mater, as an instructor in Technology and Social Studies, retiring in 2013 after 33 years teaching. John has been a leader in support for the Arts Community in Westchester. He presided over the construction of the Peekskill Art Lofts, the establishment of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, and the complete restoration of the Paramount Center for the Arts, originally a 1930’s movie house and helped bring critical funding to many Westchester programs. Legislator Testa received the “Advancing the Arts in Westchester Award” by ArtsWestchester. John has a been a leader on environmental issues for two decades and has a long record of initiatives he has supported and spearheaded. His active involvement in developing and promoting environmentally friendly policies began as mayor and continued throughout his time as Westchester County Legislator. His efforts consistently earned John the endorsement of the NY League of Conservation Voters. John’s most recognizable accomplishment has been his promotion and preservation of local history and historic landmarks, bringing an unprecedented focus on the region’s rich history, and its legacy of historic Victorian architecture. His roots in historical preservation stem from his experience as a Revolutionary War re-enactor and member of The Brigade of the American Revolution for 50 years. John was instrumental in securing the preservation of the Lincoln Depot, now the Lincoln Depot Museum, where he now serves as President. The museum was recognized in 2015 as one of The Best Museums in Westchester. He also secured the preservation of historic Fort Hill as parkland, a 40-acre parcel that was originally a Revolutionary War encampment site. Under his leadership, the United States Dept. of the Interior declared Peekskill a “Preserve America Community.” John was able to establish a record number of National Register designations of local structures, including the first Downtown and Neighborhood Historic Districts and supported the preservation of the historic Miller House in North White Plains. In 2017 John was named a “Champion of History” by the Lincoln Society in Peekskill. John and his wife of 37 years, Nancy, live in Peekskill and have two adult children, John, Jr. (fiancé Courtney Kelly) and Katy (husband Mike Mearon). John and Nancy recently welcomed the arrival of their first grandchild, Lacey Mae, in 2019.
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