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Suffolk office merger vote struck down

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the county's budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

New York's top court blocked a ballot referendum Tuesday that would have asked Suffolk County voters to merge the offices of comptroller and treasurer, a defeat for Democrat County Executive Steve Bellone and a win for Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter.

The state Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found that Suffolk officials violated county rules when they adopted the referendum, which could have potentially eliminated Carpenter's office.

In particular, officials had altered the original language of the merger proposal after it was published in legal notices. A midlevel court had called the late amendments an "impermissible deviation." The Court of Appeals, without comment, sustained that decision and threw out Bellone's appeal. The ruling means the merger question won't be on local ballots Nov. 5.

The decision is a blow to Bellone's financial plans for the county. The Democrat had claimed the merger would save the county about $850,000 annually.

Carpenter -- who lost the county executive race to Bellone in 2011 -- filed the lawsuit to block the referendum. She had claimed that Bellone and legislative officials made numerous procedural errors in advertising, amending and acting too fast in adopting the local law that called for putting the merger referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Carpenter's lawyer said Tuesday that the late changes to the language of the referendum just before a public hearing were unfair to voters. Attorney Peter Bee also suggested the ballot language should have been more neutral.

"The idea of referendum language is not to sell somebody on something, but to inform them of something," Bee said.

The language changes put a positive spin on the referendum, saying the merger would lead to "streamlining and improving government efficiency." The original wording promised savings of $1 million annually.

Carpenter called the outcome a victory for taxpayers because, she said, her office provides fiscal oversight and accountability.

Asked if she thought the attempt to merge her office just two years after the hotly contested election was political, Carpenter said: "You'd have to ask the county executive. That's certainly been brought to my attention by many, many people."

Bellone blasted the ruling.

"It is outrageous that Suffolk County taxpayers have been denied the right to vote to make government more efficient," Bellone said in a statement. "A supermajority of the Suffolk County Legislature voted to put the referendum on the ballot and the opponents of reform know that an overwhelming majority of voters support it. While the referendum will not be on the ballot, the issue is alive this November because voters can choose between legislative candidates who support improving efficiency and those who want to maintain the status quo."

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