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McKinstry: Westchester Democrats win lawsuit, but few are paying attention

Ken Jenkins, chairman of the Westchester County Board

Ken Jenkins, chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators. (April 30, 2012) Credit: Nancy Siesel

Score one for the Dems.

Democrats on the Westchester County Board of Legislators won one of its many legal challenges against County Executive Rob Astorino.

This latest suit was a dispute over an appointment to the Board of Acquisition and Contracts, a powerful trio historically made up of the county executive, the county board chairman and the public works commissioner, an Astorino appointee.

The board has argued that it makes more sense to have the budget director serve on the contracts board, but the county charter says the public works commissioner is the appropriate position. Astorino has said any change to his authority effectively requires a public vote. Astorino controls two of the three votes on the Board of Acquisition and Contract, regardless of which position sits on the powerful contracts board.

The county board changed the law so that budget director, also an executive appointment, would sit on the board, but Astorino ignored their wishes, arguing that the public must vote on the measure before any switch since it was an attempt to change his authority.

“We don’t have a monarchy,” Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins told me Friday. “We live in a society of elected officials … We set the policy and the county executive executes that policy.” 

There have been at least five lawsuits between the two branches, most stemming from differences over the authority of each branch; the suits have been over day care, capital projects and bus routes. With this decision, two challenges remain undecided.

Several have been dismissed, including one earlier this week over capital projects that both sides claimed was a win. The Astorino Administration declared it a “split decision,” though it favored the board, notably Democrats. The administration said it will appeal.

“We strongly disagree with Judge Warhit that the Board of Legislators can take away the rights of the people and change the fundamental structure of county government without a referendum,” Ned McCormack, Astorino’s communications director, wrote in a statement. “The law and court record are clear that any change in the powers of the county executive require a referendum of the people. There is no dispute that there was never a referendum, so the Board never had the authority to make the change. … Our position is that the rules of the County Charter must be followed; otherwise there are no laws at all. The Democrats on the board claim they are the law.”

The Democrats have won this one. Nonetheless, like so many of these lawsuits, you’ve got to wonder who are the winners and losers – and whether or not anyone is really paying attention. I suspect Westchester, and its roughly 950,000 residents, couldn’t care less.