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In Westchester, political battles often play out in court

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino announces the 2013

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino announces the 2013 county budget during a news conference in White Plains. (Nov. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

The five lawsuits brought by Democrats on the Westchester County Board of Legislators against Republican County Executive Rob Astorino in 2012 are nominally about subsidized child care, infrastructure funding, bus routes and members of the county's Board of Acquisition and Contract.

But in reality, they are about who holds sway over county government.

Board chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) said the lawsuits are the only way he and his colleagues can keep Astorino's autocratic, anti-government Tea Party philosophy in check.

"The theme is always the same," said Board chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers). "The administration's view is they are the only ones who have a viewpoint, and the [county] Legislature doesn't know what they are doing."

Astorino's communications director, Ned McCormack, claimed the lawsuits are the kind of gridlock residents want politicians to rise above. "Every time we tried to make adjustments, they sue us," McCormack said.

The lawsuits stem from disagreements over whether legislators or the county executive has the power to increase child care rolls and fees, identify roads and bridges for funding, determine where buses pick up passengers and who sits on the board that approves county contracts.

State Supreme Court justices are expected to render decisions in each case in coming months, county officials said.

In the meantime, it's not clear whether the lawsuits will change much in the lives of county residents, no matter who wins. In some cases, like in the legislators' challenges to Astorino's child care policies, the lawsuits no longer apply to current law. In others, they involve obscure parts of government, like the case regarding who sits on the Board of Acquisition and Contract.

Lawmakers have spent around $40,000 pursuing the lawsuits, board officials said.

The county doesn't break out how much county attorneys have spent defending the Astorino administration because that litigation is part of their normal duties, McCormack said. That doesn't mean the litigation isn't expensive, however.

"There's an in-house cost," McCormack said. "Clearly, staff are consumed by these things."


Here's a rundown of the lawsuits:

Child care

Democrats challenged Astorino's attempt to increase fees for county-subsidized child care by 15 percent without board approval. A State Supreme Court justice in White Plains sided with Astorino in August, but lawmakers have appealed to the state appellate court in Brooklyn. The appellate court has granted a temporary restraining order until it renders a decision.

In a separate case, legislators challenged Astorino's move to bar additional families from receiving subsidized child care, arguing he was illegally maintaining that the county didn't have funding for more families. A State Supreme Court justice in White Plains issued a temporary restraining order in October to stop the county executive's move. A final decision is pending.

Both cases might be moot. In December, a coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers approved a $1.7 billion budget that increased fees for county child care by 7 percent. The program is otherwise fully funded.

Acquisition and Contract

The Board of Acquisition and Contract approves county contracts and agreements. It consists of three members -- the county executive, the chairman of the Board of Legislators and a third member whose title is in dispute.

In March, lawmakers enacted a law that replaced the Public Works and Transportation commissioner on the board with the county budget director. Astorino claimed legislators would have to amend the county charter to make the change, a move that requires a referendum. Otherwise, if he followed their law, he'd be altering his powers illegally. Democrats sued. The court has yet to decide. In the meantime, Public Works Commissioner Jay Pisco remains on the board.

"We don't really have an issue if it's the budget director or the Department of Public Works commissioner," McCormack said. "The issue is that the power of the executive can't be changed by the Legislature."

Capital Projects

Lawmakers sued the county executive in 2012 after they claimed he ignored capital projects they put into the county budget for funding. Astorino contends the projects didn't follow the proper planning approval process. Astorino is asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. "They just can't arbitrary do stuff that doesn't follow the rules," McCormack said.

Bus Routes

In August, lawmakers sued after Astorino modified a bus route from Rye to Tarrytown, saying the route had insufficient riders to justify its cost. Lawmakers argued the county executive needs to offer a public hearing and submit the change to the Board of Legislators for approval. Both sides are waiting for a decision.

Jenkins said Astorino wanted to change the bus route to set a precedent of bypassing the board as he gives out contracts. The county executive is pursuing the same strategy with his plan to hand over management of the county-owned amusement park, Rye Playland, to a local, nonprofit organization, he said.

"It's about the ability to unilaterally make changes to those things the Legislature has control of by charter," Jenkins said. "It's no different from Playland."

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