It may go down as a brief footnote in county history, if it’s remembered at all, but last week a committee of the Ulster County Legislature actually challenged the county executive, and it appears that, for the time being, it got away with it. That Ulster County Executive Mike Hein reacted with swift retribution suggests that such forays into co-equal government will not be gladly suffered.
On the table for the legislature’s Law Enforcement and Public Safety Committee was the kind of routine after-the-fact executive request legislative committees had been rubber-stamping for years. The well-publicized and oft-lauded “shared services” exchange between Dutchess and Ulster counties of public-defender lawyers, dealing in cases of conflicts for home-grown attorneys, would in the opinion of both executives save perhaps $200,000 a year.
How could anybody vote against something like that?
Well, they did. It seemed there were a few loose ends administration had failed to make entirely clear to legislators, like the fact that William James Myers, a conflict resolution attorney for almost 19 years, was dismissed from his $62,100-a-year job, to be replaced by a yet-to-be-designated $72,000 successor.
It was a small detail in the larger scheme of things, but enough excuse to block the legislation in committee.
There was another incidental. Myers is the husband of Town of Saugerties Supervisor Kelly Myers, the only town supervisor to complain publicly about being blindsided by Hein’s 11th-hour takeover of town Safety Net expenses last year. Legislature Chairwoman Terry Bernardo, a Myers confidante, raised the possible connection that the outspoken supervisor’s husband got his walking papers a month later only, apparently, as a talking point. No proof exists.
Voting in favor of the executive’s recommendation to transfer some $110,000 within budget to pay for the additional public defender (with benefits) were Majority Leader Ken Ronk, Mary Beth Maio and T.J. Briggs. Voting against were committee Chairman Rich Parete, the only Democrat appointed a committee chair by Chairwoman Bernardo, Carl Belfiglio, a contrarian by nature, and Bernardo. Under legislative rules, a tie vote sends a resolution back to committee.
Also by legislative rules, the legislature chairman acts as an ex-officio member of all committees, with voting rights. Her vote proved decisive; had Bernardo not attended the committee meeting, the measure would have passed.
Beyond the rational
The response from the executive wing was swift and pointed. It hasn’t been announced who is doing Hein’s press releases these days since former mouthpiece J.J. Hanson was promoted to budget officer last year, but this missive was a scorcher.
Calling for “a coalition of the rational” to override the committee, Hein charged that “petty political maneuvers” by Bernardo had “once again put in danger the best interests of taxpayer and those most needy in our community.”
Hein said his would-be coalition would “come together and do what the American people long for from their elected officials: stop the petty politics and get things done.”
Not that Hein needs any help with the hatchet, but he dragged in on-again-off-again ally Dave Donaldson to remind his “Republican colleagues” that “the failures of Terry Bernardo were not going to get any better with time.” Republican colleagues had all voted for her reelection as chairperson the week before.
“What we have here is another of her glaring mistakes the legislature will have to fix,” Hein quoted Donaldson as saying. Donaldson also reminded his readers that he and Ronk were on the same side on this one.
“I hate it when they put me in a press release without telling me first,” said Ronk, though he stuck to his vote.
Briggs pronounced himself amazed that anyone would oppose what he considered “a common-sense, cost-saving proposal.” “Do the math. Do the math,” he said repeatedly,
Parete groused, too. “The administration had better start briefing us better on these proposals. I’m tired of just saying yes all the time,” said Parete.
The executive-friendly Ways and Means Committee met Tuesday night and unanimously voted to send the legislation to the full legislature for consideration at its January 22 regular meeting. Prediction: It will pass with at least 16 votes and much gas followed, perhaps, by loud crowing from the executive wing.
In terms of political impact and grievous humiliation, relieving the committee of its duties would down two birds (Bernardo and Parete) and reassert the executive’s dominant status in county government.