Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Branches of Government

In Season 1, Episode 4, of The West Wing, Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff to President Josiah Bartlett, delivers this line: "You know, I'm so sick of Congress, I could vomit." The relationship between the executive and legislative branches of Hudson government hasn't achieved the animosity that characterized the first year of the fictional Bartlett administration, but the contention over legal representation doesn't seem to bode well.

Last month, the Common Council decided it needed its own attorney. At the April 17 meeting of the Common Council, Council president Tom DePietro told the aldermen that, "in the spirit of the mayor's 'One Hudson,'" he had agreed that there could be just one attorney for the mayor and the Council. "I thought we would be able to work together," said DePietro, implying that, for reasons unexplained, he no longer thought that. A resolution was drafted on the spot by Alderman Eileen Halloran (Fifth Ward) that stated simply, with no Whereases: "BE IT RESOLVED, use the funds in the 2018 budget allocated in the legislative for the Council to contract with an attorney." That resolution, introduced by Halloran and seconded by Kamal Johnson (First Ward), was passed by a unanimous voice vote.

Receiving the resolution, Mayor Rick Rector requested a meeting with DePietro and city attorney Andy Howard to a meeting to discuss the situation. In 2006, it had been determined that for the Council to have its own attorney, a charter change was required, and a charter change required a referendum. In the referendum, which took place in November 2006, voters rejected the change. Ten years later, at the end of 2016, money to retain a separate attorney for the Council had been written into the City budget with no apparent concern about what the charter had to say on the matter. The purpose of the mayor's meeting seems to have been not only to find out what the Council felt was needed in the way of legal counsel that it was not getting but also to explore if having separate counsel for the Council comported with the city charter and New York State municipal law. At DePietro's request, Halloran, the author of the resolution, was also at the meeting. 

Sometime after the meeting, on April 20, Rector vetoed the resolution with this simple message, which Gossips has learned was drafted by Howard: "Pursuant to discussions with Common Council President DePietro and Minority Leader Halloran, and in accordance with Second Cities Law section 201 and Hudson City Charter section C9-1, I hereby veto this resolution at this time." The veto message was received at last night's informal Common Council meeting. The "Second Cities Law" referenced in it is New York Consolidated Law, Second Class Cities. Section 201 addresses "Duties of corporation counsel." Article 9, Section 1, of the city charter states: "The Mayor shall, during the term of his office, have the authority to retain such legal counsel as he may deem necessary or expedient for the preservation of the rights or the protection of the interests of the City."

In introducing the veto message, DePietro explained that he, Howard, and Halloran had met with the mayor, and in that meeting, Howard had made it clear that he serves both the mayor and the Common Council, and he spends most of his time serving the Council. At last night's meeting, Howard made the point that if a legal situation were to arise in which the Council and the mayor were at odds, he could represent neither because as corporation counsel he represents the interests of the City. He told the Council that his big concern, given their desire for separate counsel, was that there was a legal conflict between the mayor and the Council that he was unaware of, but that apparently is not the case. 

Johnson wanted to know why he had not been included in the meeting, since he was the one who had seconded the resolution. When DePietro told him the mayor wanted to limit the number of people attending, Johnson opined that the "only reason [for keeping the meeting small] would be to retain control" and alleged that the meeting was not "transparent." When he suggested that the entire Council should have been present at the meeting, Alderman Rob Bujan (First Ward) pointed out that if the entire Council had been present, it would have had to have been a public meeting. Alderman Tiffany Garriga (Second Ward) insisted that the entire Council "should have been told the meeting was taking place." DePietro expressed the opinion that it wasn't fair to mention him and Halloran in the veto message. Declaring, "It's important for the city understand that we have an important job," Johnson talked about "dysfunction" and "backdoor meetings" and again asserted that he should have been included in the meeting because he had seconded the resolution.

Addressing Johnson's concerns, DePietro explained, "The mayor wanted me there alone, but the understanding was that it would be brought back to the Council." Later he assured Johnson, "This was in no way a backroom discussion. It was a testy meeting, trust me." 

At the suggestion of Garriga, it was decided that the Council, at its regular meeting on May 15, would vote on whether or not to override the mayor's veto.

Back in 2006, when there was a referendum about retaining separate legal counsel for the Council, Gossips was an alderman and very much in support of the idea. At the time, I wrote what was meant to be an informational press release on the issue. It was never published because, given my status as alderman, the newspaper decided its purpose was not to provide information but to persuade people to support the referendum. I went back to that document today and found the paragraph, in the four-paragraph piece, that explained the reason for wanting separate legal counsel for the Council back then:
The idea of having "counsel for the Council" came up in the last term of Richard Scalera's administration [2004-2005], when then Common Council president Mike Vertetis and the aldermen felt that city attorney Jack Connor, who was employed by the mayor, was not always responsive to their issues and willing to devote time to their initiatives. The new Common Council, which took office in January [2006] eager individually and as a body to advance such issues as community preservation, sustainability, quality of life, and accountability in government, realized that achieving their legislative goals would require a significant amount of attorney time to prepare resolutions and research and write new legislation--more time than the city attorney could devote to these matters.
It seems that the biggest issue for the Council twelve years ago--not being able to command a sufficient amount of the city attorney's time--may not be the problem today. Howard attests to spending more time doing the Council's business than the mayor's business. The issue instead, as articulated by Halloran, is establishing that the Council is "an equal body to the executive branch." "We need to assert the fact," said Halloran, "that we are a coequal branch of government."

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