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December 29, 2008

 

2008 brings county fresh faces

New Legislature chairman takes helm; county ousts election commissioner

LegislatureJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Newly elected Chairman of the Cortland County Legislature John Daniels (D-Cortlandville) listens as County Administrator Scott Schrader speaks at the Legislature’s first session of 2008.

By CATHERINE WILDE
Staff Reporter
cwilde@cortlandstandard.net

Cortland County experienced a turbulent year in 2008, with the adoption of a $120 million budget, the formation of a new ethics law, a contentious district attorney race and lawsuits brought against the county by Democratic Election Commissioner Bill Wood.
The year started off with dissent as John Daniels, a Democrat, was appointed Legislature chairman by nearly all Republicans in a vote of 11-8, beating his opponent Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward), who had the backing of most of the Democrats. Three Democrats, Chad Loomis (D- 8th Ward), Kathie Arnold (D- Cuyler, Solon and Truxton) and Daniels, sided with the Republicans to appoint Daniels.
Mark Suben, also a Democrat, was unanimously appointed to a two-year term as county attorney.
Suben leaves office Jan. 1 to become county district attorney.
Suben won the bid for district attorney in November against Republican incumbent David Hartnett. Suben received about 53 percent of the vote with Hartnett taking about 47 percent, a turn around from their last face-off in the 2004 election when Hartnett won the race with approximately 60 percent of the votes.
The Legislature adopted an ethics law Aug. 28 that among other things forbids election commissioners from serving concurrently as party chairs.
Republican Election Commissioner Bob Howe decided not to run again for Republican Party chair and County Clerk Elizabeth Larkin was elected to the position at the Sep. 23 Republican Committee reorganizational meeting.
The ethics law was used to challenge Wood’s position as election commissioner, because he also serves as Democratic Party chairman.
Despite the move to oust Wood, he had Larkin swear him into office for a second term Aug. 1, claiming he had weighted votes of five legislators that broke a 5-5 tie in the Democratic caucus. That tie and one earlier in caucus had appeared to deny Wood a second term.
The Legislature later unanimously nullified the appointment since legislators denied having cast weighted votes. This nullification prompted Wood to sue the county, saying the Legislature has no authority to do this, a motion Judge Phillip Rumsey ruled against Dec. 17. Rumsey ruled Wood was not properly appointed and weighted votes were never used.
Wood was ousted as election commissioner Dec. 11 when the Legislature ratified Daniels’ order that he step down, given Wood’s violation of the new ethics law that went into effect Oct. 14. The Legislature appointed former City School Board President Tom Brown to the seat instead.
Wood sued the county again Tuesday, this time naming Brown as well, asking that Brown not be allowed to take the seat and requesting the court to instead find Wood entitled to continue as election commissioner. The suit challenges the Legislature’s move to oust him and requests the Legislature be directed to accept the Democratic Committee’s nomination of Wood. The matter will be heard Jan. 15.
Partisan politics is something the county is taking strides to eliminate when it comes to decision making for appointments, with the adoption of the ethics law as one example. The county is also seeking to have candidates appointed to the positions of clerk of the Legislature and county attorney in a purely merit-based manner.
A bipartisan committee was formed to suggest the replacement for Suben and one is likely to be formed to suggest the next clerk appointment as well. Jeremy Boylan now serves as legislative clerk in addition to county historian and records manager. The positions have been consolidated to save money.
Such job consolidation is one reaction to the county’s fiscal troubles, a situation County Administrator Scott Schrader described as dire when he introduced the 2009 budget draft in November. The $119.7 million budget was adopted Dec. 4, despite its 14.3 percent increase over the 2008 spending plan. The tax rate is up 4.3 percent over the 2008 rate, up to $14.92 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Given the county’s financial straits, some proposed projects have been put off or dropped altogether. Bids were rejected Nov. 7 for the proposed 7,500-square-foot River Street structure that would house the county Department of Motor Vehicles and Board of Elections.
The bids came in at about $2.1 million and legislators decided to scale down the plans and rebid in the spring when the cost of building is anticipated to be lower.
Plans to relocate the Area Agency on Aging building to county-owned property on south Main Street will be abandoned since the plans came back at about $7.6 million, far over the expected $4 million estimate.
Schrader hopes discussions with department heads will yield a cohesive plan for the county that the state Assembly and Senate can take into consideration when reviewing Gov. David Paterson’s proposed 2009-10 budget. He hopes the Senate and Assembly will not impose additional cuts in aid to counties that would be detrimental to the counties and increase their cost of doing business.

 

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