ALBANY -- Judges of New York's highest court relentlessly grilled Nassau County lawyers Monday over County Executive Edward Mangano's firing of Democratic members of a property-tax appeals panel just days after he took office.
The seven-member Court of Appeals hammered away on whether Mangano exceeded his authority when he dismissed the fact that members of the Assessment Review Commission had been appointed to fixed terms of up to five years.
"What is the point of having five-year terms if they can be removed at any time?" Judge Robert Smith asked County Attorney John Ciampoli, launching a spirited back-and-forth that touched on politics, executive powers, property assessments and the validity of fixed terms for appointees.
At issue is a lawsuit filed by Dolores Sedacca and two other commissioners against Mangano, a Republican, after he fired them upon taking office Jan. 1, 2010.
They were among six assessment commissioners appointed by Mangano's predecessor, Democrat Thomas Suozzi, in his final days in office.
The plaintiffs contend that they didn't serve at the will of the county executive but were appointed to five-year terms and could only be fired for cause.
Mangano has argued that the county charter clearly gives him the power to remove commissioners, and lower courts have ruled in his favor.
The judges peppered Ciampoli with questions Monday.
"Is it illegal for a county executive to say I want them out because I want my own people?" Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked.
Ciampoli replied that the Nassau charter gives that power to the county executive.
"It's not high-level policymakers we're talking about here," Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. chimed in. "They just say this house is worth this or that."
"Absolutely, they are policy positions," Ciampoli replied.
"You are unique in that regard," Pigott answered back.
Judge Carmen Ciparick then asked: "If we rule in your favor, how would it affect every other commission with five-year terms?"
"It doesn't impact any other commission," Ciampoli said, "because it only affects those counties with the same provisions granted in the Nassau County charter."
Judge Victoria Graffeo asked what was necessary to constitute "cause" for dismissal.
"Through the election, the electorate said it wanted [a] different approach to county assessments," Graffeo said. "Isn't that sufficient?"
The court takes four to eight weeks to decide a case.