I saw a post by Legislator Mark Margeson pop up on social media earlier this week. I did not respond in any way because, as I have said repeatedly, it is time for Chemung County leaders to starting focusing on the important issues in our community rather than unnecessary and frankly destructive internal disputes.
This week I worked hard with many other legislators to do just that. The County-City Committee had an excellent meeting with Elmira College President Charles Lindsay where we discussed ways to strengthen the partnership between local government and the school, and we also continued working toward a report we are creating that outlines ways Chemung County can further help address Elmira’s fiscal condition. I sat down with several legislators to look at how we can best prepare for the possibility that Albany lawmakers legalize adult-use recreational marijuana as well as begin taking a hard look at the Opioid crisis that our community faces. And, I worked with a number of environmentalists to see how we can benefit from their knowledge of many programs and grants in New York through either the creation of a new Citizen Advisory Committee or by incorporating them into a council that already exists.
This type of activity is why we have local government, and why I ran for office.
However, it now seems necessary to respond to Legislator Margeson’s frankly untruthful remarks as they have been published online by the Elmira Star Gazette (here) and will likely be in the newspaper tomorrow. After a very hard week at work the last thing I want to do is spend part of Saturday writing this, but the extremely misleading nature of Margeson’s remarks requires clarification.
The attempted firing of the legislative attorney
At the start of his Your Turn article Margeson states:
The county executive took action in accordance with the Chemung County Charter to terminate the service of an individual serving as the legislative attorney for cause. He never said the legislature could not have an attorney.
The heart of the litigation between the legislature and county executive is over separation of powers, i.e. whether the executive branch can take negative action against an employee appointed by and serving under the legislature. In other words, the legislature has taken the position that it – not the executive – has the right to determine whether termination of our lawyer is appropriate.
On February 27, 2019, Moss wrote a letter to Attorney Bryan Maggs explaining that Maggs was being fired:
The next day a Special Meeting was held to address this issue. By a vote of 14-0 (one legislator was absent) the Legislature voted to reaffirm both its appointment of Bryan Maggs and its power to make such appointment. Notably, as shown below and here, I neither drafted nor moved or seconded this resolution, and Margeson voted in favor of it.
To be clear, by voting in favor of this resolution Margeson stated he agrees that “the selection, appointment, reporting, duties, benefits, and all other terms and conditions of employment of the Attorney to the Legislature and Special Districts has been, and shall heretofore continue to be, vested within the exclusive authority and province of the Legislature of the County of Chemung.”
It is difficult if not impossible to reconcile Margeson’s vote with his statement that Moss acted properly.
The call for legal action
Margeson next writes:
“It was Legislator Sonsire who started the action for an Article 78 lawsuit against the county executive, for basically exercising his rights as listed in the County Charter. My colleague has failed to mention that she even pursued legal counsel for the legislature and made a motion to pursue legal action against the county executive. It was tabled, much to her dismay. The county executive was aware of this pending lawsuit and prepared appropriately.”
I have been outspoken from the start that litigation is something neither I nor the Legislature wants.
I wrote my first blog post about this issue on February 28th, found here, wherein I stated that “on Wednesday I was at a meeting where Moss provided me and several other legislators with a very brief letter stating that he was unilaterally firing Maggs, apparently instead of challenging the validity of the appointment in court. We suggested ways to avoid a legal dispute such as mediation or arbitration, but were told the termination was final and we could take it up in court if we disagree.” I have reiterated that statement many, many times on this blog and at meetings.
The Legislature discussed passing a resolution that gives us the authority to bring an Article 78 Petition on the same day I wrote my initial post. A video of the meeting is embedded below.
The resolution passed that day by a vote of 13-1, with Margeson as the only no vote.
Several weeks later the legislature voted to table a vote on hiring an attorney to represent us in the Article 78 proceeding as many legislators, including Vice Chairperson John Burin, felt we would be able to negotiate a resolution with Moss without litigation. However, Moss sued us shortly thereafter rendering the issue moot.
Anyone interested in more detail related to this aspect of the matter can read through the Chemung County Matters blog posts starting on February 28th.
Passage of a Local Law
Margeson next states:
“When Legislator Sonsire doubted her ability to sway the legislature to take legal action, she introduced a “Local Law” that changes the Chemung County Charter, by changing the authority of the county executive without a public referendum that violates Municipal Home Rule Law. I voted against this action because I viewed as a violation of the right of the constituents of Chemung County. After the “Local Law” was passed, the county executive took the action Legislator Sonsire states in her article.”
This is when Margeson’s gap in accuracy really becomes clear.
As set forth above, the legislature voted 13-1 on February 28th to authorize the commencement of an Article 78 action. This did not mean the legislature intended to actually do so, but rather would have legal authority if it became necessary.
At the same meeting on February 28th a Local Law to amend the charter was introduced. It passed through the Personnel Committee that night by a vote of 6-0, but was not voted upon by the Full Legislature because the legislators must have it in their possession for at least seven days to take a full vote. The Minutes from the Special Personnel meeting on February 28th (found here) and video embedded above show this is true.
The charter amendment ultimately passed by a vote of 14-1 on March 11, and the Legislature voted 14-1 to override Moss’ veto of it on April 8th. Each time Margeson was the only legislator who voted no.
The notion that I created this Local Law because the legislature would not bring a lawsuit is absolutely baseless as a review of the Minutes and video shows.
Creation of a Charter Review commitee
Margeson next switches gears to talk about the Charter itself:
“My suggestion was to create a committee of three legislators and three from the executive branch that would work together to develop an updated version of the Chemung County Charter. Updating the county charter would allow the committee to incorporate many of the current concerns, along with addressing the technological issues that have change the way we do business. The issue of live-streaming meetings and being transparent needs to be presented in a professional and legal manner, just an example of a needed update in the charter. Social media has created a new form of communication, and it is extremely important that the information is presented in a positive and professional manner to the community.”
This is the first time I have ever heard Margeson suggest the creation of a Charter Review Committee. He has never raised it at a meeting or, to the best of my knowledge, spoken of it in public before now.
It is a great idea. In fact, the previous legislature had a committee for years but disbanded it in December.
It is unclear how live-streaming falls into this discussion. As many people know, I have been live-streaming our meetings since I took office in January. At his inauguration Moss stated he intends to provide live-streaming at all public meetings. That would be great, as doing it myself is extra work, can be costly if Wi-Fi is not available, and the audio-visual quality would be better with equipment other than an iPhone. However, I will do so until the County takes over as I have received a lot of positive feedback about the service. Moreover, I have found it is helpful for me to go back and watch the meetings in times like this when clarification is necessary.
A County Manager
Margeson next goes even further:
“Legislator Sonsire is a proponent of the “county manager” form of government, with all the power and authority in the legislature. It was suggested that this form of government was worth looking into as a future possibility. Chemung County tried that once, and apparently, they decided it was not effective and provided the system in place today. Additionally, she would like to reduce the number of legislators by 30% to 50%. It seems to be about power and authority first, and then maybe we will address issues.”
At the onset, Chemung County has never had a County Manager. We had a Board of Supervisors until 1974 when we created a charter form of government with a County Executive.
More fundamentally, I have never once stated I am a proponent of a “county manager” form of government. What I have said and strongly believe is that we should ask hard questions about whether we have the best form of government to fit our needs. That is not about power, but rather good governance.
Similarly, I have never once suggested reducing the legislature by 50%. We have a census coming up in 2020 that will probably show Chemung County has lost population since the time the charter was enacted in 1974. When we get the census data back, it makes a lot of sense to consider whether we need 15 districts or rather some can be consolidated. Power and authority? No, instead it is about fiscal responsibility.
To end, Margeson states “I have been against her actions with the county executive and have voted against them.”
It is worth repeating that these are not “my” actions. The Legislature has 15 independent, smart members, and we have spent an inordinate amount of time deliberating how to move forward. I did not draft any of the resolutions related to these issues or the Local Law amending the charter, and have never once spoken to the lawyer who is representing the legislature in the lawsuit.
In the end 14 of 15 members of the Legislature have voted in favor of various pieces of legislation, and Margeson has chosen not to do so. It is fully his right to disagree and form whatever opinions he sees fit. However, this attempt to misinform the public is inappropriate and only results in further distraction from the work that matters.