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Appeals court rules against Suffolk merger bid

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed merging

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed merging the elected offices of treasurer and comptroller. Treasurer Angie Carpenter, left, is up for re-election to a four-year term this fall. Joseph Sawicki, right, has been comptroller since 2003, and term limits prohibit him from running again in 2014. Credit: James Escher; Kathy Kmonicek

A state appeals court blocked a November referendum on the merger of the Suffolk County comptroller and treasurer's offices, dealing another blow to County Executive Steve Bellone's proposal to save some $850,000 a year.

A four-judge panel from the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, ruled unanimously on Monday that Suffolk officials violated county rules when they amended the language of the referendum legislation after giving public notice of the measure.

County Treasurer Angie Carpenter, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Democrat Steve Bellone for county executive in 2011, brought the lawsuit to block the referendum. A lower court ruled against the law in September and Suffolk County had appealed it.

Carpenter's attorney, Peter A. Bee, of Mineola, said he and Carpenter were "gratified by the court's decision. But now's it's time to stop spending taxpayer money on fruitless litigation and pointless legislation in efforts to abolish the elected office of county treasurer."

Bellone, who has pushed for the merger, said the county was preparing an appeal, though he acknowledged that the timeline would be tight. The deadline for printing ballots for the Nov. 5 election is Oct. 7.

He called the appellate decision the "quintessential example of a technicality," and said the merger would save about $850,000 a year.

"If they can't win legislatively, they're trying to blow up the process," Bellone, a Democrat, said in an interview. "They're suing to block residents' the right to vote."

"It's an uphill climb when you're dealing with a unanimous decision from the appellate court," said Deputy Presiding Officer Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon).

The merger of the comptroller and treasurer's office originally was advertised in a legal notice as saving more than $1 million annually. The description of the legislation later changed to read that it would lead to "streamlining and improving government efficiency."

"The alteration of this clearly specified goal to a more generally stated goal is an impermissible deviation," the judges ruled in a two-page decision.

The appellate court overturned the portion of the lower court's decision that said the legislature had violated rules by passing the law too soon after it was submitted.

Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) who has opposed the merger, called the decision "a win for the taxpayers of Suffolk County and a win for honesty in the voting process."

Cilmi dismissed Bellone's contention that it was thrown out on a technicality. "It's the law, it's the rule," he said. "The law is technical, and it has to be followed."

Paul Sabatino II, former counsel for Suffolk County for 20 years who authored the county rule cited by the appellate court, criticized the decision. He called the ruling "a shocking departure from the normal rules of engagement about how we pass charter laws and local laws. There's no precedent."

Bills are regularly changed after they're first advertised, Sabatino said. "You can't do a perfect bill in one shot," he said.

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