Westchester Budget Director Lawrence Soule took his seat at the table Thursday for the weekly meeting of the Board of Acquisition and Contract in compliance with a judge’s ruling that a law changing the board’s makeup is valid and must take effect.
Acting state Supreme Court Justice Barry Warhit ordered County Executive Rob Astorino at the end of February to implement a law passed over his veto in late 2011 making changes to the contracts board.
The administration has appealed the decision but Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett said officials will comply while the legal action goes forward.
“The county executive strongly disagrees with the reasoning and conclusion of the judge,” Plunkett said at the contracts board’s regular 11 a.m. Thursday meeting. Nevertheless they will respect the decision, he said.
A&C, which approves most county contracts, is made up of the county executive, the chairman of the Legislature and, until now, the DPW commissioner. The law replaced the county public works commissioner with the budget director.
At the meeting, Board of Legislators Vice-Chairman Lyndon Williams, standing in for the chairman, tried to test another provision of the law that says the chairman of the Board of Legislators can add items to the contracts board agenda without the approval of the other members. He asked to add a capital project from 2011 but County Attorney Robert Meehan said the law applies to items from this fiscal year and, based on that, Plunkett didn’t allow the addition.
“This first meeting after the decision we’re asking to comply with that provision,” Williams said.
The item Williams sought to add was to approve $4.4 million for the LaPorte project in Mount Vernon, part of the Atlantic Development Group’s planned $120 million downtown revitalization project for the city. The funding was approved in May 2011.
In the lawsuit, the administration had argued that a referendum is required for a law changing the powers of the county executive to go into effect. But Judge Warhit said to use that defense, the full Board of Legislators must be a party to the case. The administration declined to bring in the board so it wasn’t allowed to use the argument. The case was filed by three Democratic leaders of the board.
“He just cannot disagree with a law and say, ‘I’m not going to follow it,'” said Legislator Lyndon Williams, D-Mount Vernon, one of the three legislative leaders who brought the lawsuit.
Democratic legislators, who have been in a struggle with Republican Astorino over lines of authority within county government, have asked in several lawsuits against the administration for a judge to affirm that their laws are presumed valid and must be implemented. Acting state Supreme Court Justice Barry Warhit obliged in his Feb. 25 decision: “The county executive is required to implement legislative policy declarations which are not effectively vetoed or judicially invalidated,” he wrote.
Ned McCormack, a spokeswoman for Astorino, said the county attorney will file an appeal. The law is clear that a referendum is required to make a change to the power of the county executive, he said.
“Our position is that the rules of the County Charter must be followed; otherwise there are no laws at all,” he wrote. “The Democrats on the board claim they are the law.”
The law, passed in late 2011 over Astorino’s veto, replaced the county public works commissioner on the Board of Acquisition and Contract with the budget director.
The DPW commissioner serves at Astorino’s pleasure but the budget director has a set term of office, potentially allowing him to act with more independence, Williams said.
The A&C, which approves most county contracts, is made up of the county executive, the chairman of the Legislature and, until now, the DPW commissioner.
“The county executive used the public works director’s vote to nullify any act of the Board of Legislators,” Williams said.
Warhit ordered the DPW chief to stop sitting on the board and the budget director to take his place.
The judge said Astorino would have to bring the full Board of Legislators into the case to raise the defense that the law was improperly enacted because it required a referendum.