County leads way in closed-door actions

OBSERVER Photo Chautauqua County legislators, made up of 14 Republicans and five Democrats, have a history of making decisions in caucus.

Former Fredonia village attorney Sam Drayo recently brought to light an accepted practice by elected officials that is full of pitfalls for constituents. During one of last month’s contentious Village Board meetings, Drayo criticized the practice of holding caucuses.

Normally, these sessions are held among party members outside of the public’s view to strategize and discuss nominations of party candidates for offices in a coming election. With the Democrats holding the majority, Mayor Athanasia Landis, Trustees James Lynden, Kara Christina and Michael Barris hold all the cards — three of five votes — regarding resolutions.

“The village has held caucuses in closed-door sessions with the press not available and the public is left out,” Drayo said at a July meeting. “I would discourage that.”

Fredonia, however, is far from alone. In fact, the largest caucus gathering happens every month in the county seat of Mayville before the Legislature meetings. With Republicans in command, owning 14 of a possible 19 seats, they gather before each meeting to discuss what resolutions will be presented and how each legislator will vote. Most of the juicy discussion is here – not on the Legislature floor.

That brings us to the reality check for all county residents: Policy and spending decisions affecting you are being made in private. It is not happening during the open meeting.

Some blame, however, does not fall completely on this group of legislators for this flawed practice. It has been an unfortunate tradition for years, especially when there were 25 legislators. Up until 2014, it usually included a split of 13 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

What we had then, before the downsizing, were some real characters who were not shy about stating their opinions. They were, in a sense, voices of wisdom that made other representatives think. They included Keith Ahlstrom, John Runkle, current County Executive George Borrello, the late Joseph Trusso and Anthony Teresi. These lawmakers actually spoke out when an issue came to the floor they could not back. Sometimes, they even went against their party in the vote.

What do we have today? With the exception of three, you have a bunch of legislators that hardly stand up for anything. In other words, you have 16 slices in a package of cheese.

All are the same and seemingly anonymous — even to those they represent in their district.

Those three who stand out? They are Legislators Terry Niebel, Pierre Chagnon and Charles Nazarro. Without question, they are the most outspoken when it comes to the major issues or discussing the finances of the county’s $235 million operation.

But a recent vote in July, which went under the radar, was another one of those feel-good approvals that will take a toll on taxpayers in the future. Eighteen lawmakers approved $2 to $3 per hour increases for 75 caseworkers.

How does that impact the current county budget? That was not discussed, but it’s $150,000 more for this year in salaries. Those pay hikes, it must be noted, were not state mandated.

In making the case for the increase in pay, an employee in the department noted high turnover rates and caseworkers are handling more cases.

Even with the higher wages, it does not guarantee the staff will be more content in their positions. In fact, other county employees — seeing how uneventful that approval was — may soon be asking for more money due to turnover rates or taking on more work in their departments.

Talk about opening a can of worms.

For those 18 who voted “yes,” it was painless because those funds are not coming out of their wallets. It was a lot tougher for Niebel to vote “no,” while stating he sympathizes with the staff, but believes the pay raises are a budget issue.

Exactly.

Maybe, instead of passing wage hikes on to the taxpayers, Mayville legislators could be more generous themselves. For attending 12 meetings a year, county lawmakers receive an annual salary of $10,000. They could donate some of that back — or cut their pay to subsidize the approved salary increases.

In the world of those elected to municipal representation, serving as legislator is the highest-paying, easiest gig with the least accountability. Fredonia trustees and Dunkirk council members, who earn about $5,000 annually, are on the front lines. For county legislators, it’s easy street.

By the way, those 18 “yes” legislators also seem tuned out to the potential crisis that lies ahead. The same month those pay hikes were approved, NRG Energy Inc. announced it was backing out of repowering the Dunkirk plant. That company once provided $2 million in tax revenues to the county — and that won’t be coming back anytime soon.

Oh well. It is your money they are spending.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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