Suffolk readies for term-limit battle

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Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota outside the

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota outside the Suffolk County Legislature Building in Hauppauge (Dec. 15, 2011) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New

Suffolk County is preparing to defend against the challenge to its term-limit law by three of its elected officials.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Friday that lawyer Stuart Besen, a former Huntington Town councilman, was retained for the task. Considering potential conflicts, Schneider said, "The county attorney made a judgment call that it was best to go with outside counsel."

Besen said facts in the case are not in dispute, so the outcome will hinge on matters of law and constitution. A court date is expected to be set after a county response is filed.

District Attorney Thomas Spota, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, and Clerk Judy Pascale claim in state Supreme Court that the county's three-term limit -- enacted through a 1993 referendum -- should not have covered their offices. Several experts expressed agreement that because all three posts are established under Article XIII of the state Constitution, they are beyond the reach of local term-limit laws.

But according to at least one lawyer steeped in municipal law, legal backing for the county term-limit law as crafted can be found in Article IX of the state Constitution, which establishes a "bill of rights" for local governments, as well as sections of the state's home-rule laws.

Paul Sabatino II, former chief deputy county executive and former county legislative counsel, points in particular to two cases. In 1993, the state's highest court held New York City could impose term limits on its elected officials, and the decision that prevailed applied "without limitation and without reference to state officers," he said. And in 1979, the court said Westchester could abolish its elected county sheriff's office, place its functions under a new appointive public safety commissioner -- and not allow the incumbent sheriff to complete his elected term.

For the plaintiffs, lawyer Kevin Snover suggested in his complaint that a rationale for term limits stated by the Suffolk Legislature -- "reducing or diminishing the influence of special interests on the governmental process" -- doesn't even fit his clients' jobs because they do not "promulgate or propose laws in a legislative capacity." Snover cites a California court case, too, where term limits for the Los Angeles County sheriff were voided for parallel reasons.

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State filings show Snover received $7,500 in fees from the three plaintiffs' campaign funds late last year. Of that total, $6,000 came from Spota's committee, $1,000 from DeMarco's, and $500 from Pascale's.

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