Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has opened a new front in his battle to merge county financial offices and oust Treasurer Angie Carpenter from her $185,993-a-year post.
Bellone, a Democrat, has filed a bill that would drop a 55-year-old provision in the county charter that protects elected officials from being removed from office in the middle of their terms.
"The term of office of an elective county official shall not be abridged by reason of the approval of the adoption of this charter or any question submitted to voters," the provision states.
Bellone says his measure would bring "common sense home rule reforms." The bill says the charter restricts "the full panoply of county home rule powers," and that the amendment "would give the county the flexibility to administer this county government." In other words: Carpenter, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Bellone for county executive in 2011, could get the ax.
Carpenter's reaction: "This is pure vendetta. They don't want someone watching the money."
She warned that county lawmakers, who are weighing the proposed charter change, could be Bellone's next targets.
"It's very troubling for every resident and every lawmaker," said Carpenter. "He could decide to strike out at one legislator and have 17 instead of 18. He could do anything."
Bellone last summer sought a referendum on a merger of the county treasurer and comptroller's offices. He predicted $1 million in annual savings -- though subsequent estimates pegged the savings at about $700,000. The referendum was derailed in court because Bellone failed to provide proper legal notices.
Bellone and Democratic lawmakers vowed to resurrect the referendum measure so that it can be put to a vote next November.
Jon Schneider, deputy county executive, said the proposed charter revision is meant to pre-empt a future Carpenter legal challenge: "I don't think it's entirely paranoid to think she might find grounds to sue," he said.
Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive, said the Bellone administration appears "a little gun-shy" after its court loss and Carpenter's survival of two attempts by former County Executive Steve Levy to eliminate her job. "They must be wondering how many uranium-tipped bullets does it take to kill the office of county treasurer?" said Sabatino, a Republican who has worked for Democrats and Republicans.
Carpenter, re-elected unopposed in November, says any new merger initiative will have to be delayed four years once she starts her new term in January.
"Angie is determined to use any and every legal argument needed to preserve her office," said her attorney, Peter Bee. "By proceeding in this direction, the county is just inviting further litigation."
Legislative Counsel George Nolan said the charter provision that Bellone wants to repeal has no bearing on Carpenter. The section applies only to officials who were in office in 1958 who might have been affected by sweeping charter changes implemented at that time, Nolan said. He also said a merger can go forward and Carpenter's job axed in midterm as long as voters approve the move in referendum.
County Attorney Dennis Brown agreed with Nolan's assessment, but said the repeal would make clear that the county can alter elected officials' terms as long as voters approve.
"What we're trying to do is save everyone a couple of bucks in legal fees," Schneider said.