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We Here Highly Resolve

We Here Highly Resolve
An Analysis of the Erie County Legislature

In November every member of the Erie County Legislature is up for re-election. Now is an appropriate time to review what actually takes place in the Legislature. Every two weeks Legislators have an open floor to propose new ideas by filing resolutions and proposing local laws. The dictionary defines a legislature as a deliberative body that has the power to make, change or repeal laws. The analysis below shows that not much deliberation of substance takes place in the Erie County Legislature and very few laws are acted on. The number of local laws passed by the Erie County Legislature in 2014 was 3:

Spotlight on Legislator Loughran—Not A Man of Initiative

In 2014, the Legislature addressed 683 resolutions. Of these 683 resolutions, sixty percent honored individuals and community groups, twenty five percent honored people who recently died and only fifteen percent addressed county business.

In November all eleven Erie County Legislators are up for re-election. Sadly only six legislators have an opponent, so many will be re-elected without any real examination or debate of their record. Through this article and others to follow, I will be taking a closer look at incumbent legislators who have an opponent, starting with Legislator Thomas Loughran who represents a district covering the town of Amherst.

Loughran Has Not Managed To Put His Stamp on Much of Anything

Thomas Loughran was elected to the Erie County Legislature in 2005, after serving as an Amherst Town Board member. In 2007, when seeking re-election, the Buffalo News stated: “... so far Loughran has not managed to put his stamp on much of anything.” After 10 years of service, it appears the same quote still applies to Loughran.

In 2014, Loughran did not serve as the prime sponsor of a single item of substance. In 2013, Loughran was the least active member as far as filing items of substance. Loughran will add his name as a co-sponsor of items but he brings forward very little of his own initiative.

Loughran did take the time to file three resolutions honoring individuals who died during 2014, and he filed 25 resolutions honoring individuals and community groups. Even with those efforts the number of items he filed were at the bottom when compared to his colleagues.

Telephone Records Show Very Few Calls

Through a Freedom of Information request I was able to obtain telephone records regarding the taxpayer funded District Offices County Legislator’s have.

From January 2013 until the end of June 2014, Legislator Loughran’s office phone had the least amount of activity for incoming and outgoing telephone calls.

Loughran’s Schedule Consists of Two Paragraphs

I also requested a copy of each Legislator’s 2014 schedule as far as official meetings and community events they attended. Most Legislators provided me with a copy of a calendar showing their activities on a day by day basis. Loughran responded to my request with two paragraphs that stated the following:

“Legislator Loughran’s scheduled activities for 2014 included the meetings of the full Erie County Legislature, the committee meetings of the Erie County Legislature, the annual budget hearings associated with the Legislature’s review of the 2015 Erie County Executive’s budget, and public hearings associated with the passage of Erie County Local Laws. The specific times and dates of these meetings are recorded in the minutes of the Erie County Legislature.

Further, Legislator Loughran’s agenda included daily contact with the district office to discuss constituent concerns, mail communications, news media coverage of public policy issues, and the analysis and evaluation of matters before the Erie County Legislature.”

I was honestly shocked at Loughran’s response and how little information he shared. I forwarded the following email to Loughran:

“I recently had the chance to review the 2014 schedule you provided in response to my FOIL request.

Out of 11 Legislators your response provided the least amount of information. Other Legislators provided a calendar showing on a daily, weekly, monthly basis meetings held with other government officials, constituents, community events, Legislature meetings etc. Those that did not provide a calendar at least provided a chronological listing by date of meetings and events attended.

Your two paragraph response does not provide any details whatsoever. Do you keep a written or electronic calendar of any sort to keep track of meetings and events as an elected official? My request was to obtain a copy of the schedule/calendar that you keep.

I can only assume that during 2014 you did not have any scheduled meetings with other government officials outside of regular Legislature meetings. You did not have any scheduled meetings with constituents and that you did not have any scheduled community events that you attended.

If my understanding as stated above is incorrect, please provide me with an actual copy of your schedule/calendar as I requested.”

Legislator Loughran never responded to my email. It appears from my research that while he earns $42,500 per year Loughran is not taking much initiative as a legislator. Current Amherst Town Board Member Guy Marlette is running against Loughran.

• Penalizing private land holders for allowing consumption of alcohol by minors other than dependents of the land holders, on said property, (Lynn Dixon).

• Amending the Erie County Charter in relation to the Erie County Community Coordinating Council on Children and Families, (Lynn Dixon).

• Relating to the leasing of approximately two acres of vacant land with an option to lease an additional one-acre parcel on the South Campus of Erie Community College to West Herr Toyota of Orchard Park, (John Mills).

In 2013, two laws were passed including the Banning of Hydraulic Fracturing on land owned by Erie County. In 2012, legislation Prohibiting Cyber-bulling in Erie County was passed.

While very few laws were enacted, legislators filed 680 Resolutions in 2014. The 680 resolutions consisted of the following:

• 412 Miscellaneous Resolutions honoring individuals and community organizations

• 169 Memorial Resolutions honoring individuals who have passed away

• 99 Legislator Resolutions which address an actual issue instead of honoring someone

John Mills the King of Honoring People

Sixty percent of the items filed by Legislators are Miscellaneous Resolutions that honor an individual or a community organization. An example of some Miscellaneous Resolutions filed in 2014:

Legislator Mills—Honoring the North Boston Fire Company on its Celebration of 110 Years of Service to the Community

Legislator Miller-Williams—Honoring Hispanics United of Buffalo on Their Annual Gala

Legislator Hardwick—Honoring Hizair Hair Salon on Being Named Business of the Year for 2014 by the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce

While such resolutions are nice gestures, is this really what County Legislators and their staff should be spending time on? Such resolutions are clearly about trolling for re-election votes. Researching, drafting, filing and forwarding each one of these resolutions takes the time of tax payer funded employees.

The King of Miscellaneous Resolutions for 2014 is legislator John Mills who filed 70 of them. Followed by:

2) Barbara Miller-Williams—65 Resolutions

3) Kevin Hardwick—49 Resolutions

4) Betty Jean Grant—41 Resolutions

5) Joe Lorigo & Ted Morton—37 Resolutions

6) Ed Rath & Lynn Dixon—36 Resolutions

7) Patrick Burke—26 Resolutions

8) Tom Loughran—25 Resolutions

9) Peter Savage—16 Resolutions

Lynn Dixon the Queen of Honoring the Dead

Not missing a chance to troll for votes and make friends, legislators adjourn their meetings by adopting resolutions in memory of individuals that passed away. Twenty five percent of the items coming before the Legislature are Resolutions honoring deceased individuals. Staff members must spend time on the important function of combing through obituaries and writing up documents to remind family members at the time of their grief that their County Legislator truly cares.

The Queen of Memorial Resolutions in 2014 was Legislator Lynn Dixon who recognized 36 deceased individuals, followed by:

2) Kevin Hardwick—34

3) Ed Rath & Ted Morton—24

4) Joe Lorigo—13

5) Betty Jean Grant—12

6) Barbara Miller Williams—9

7) Peter Savage—7

8) Mills, Burke & Loughran—3

Once again a nice gesture which families may appreciate, but is this what taxpayer funded legislators and staff should be spending their time on?

John Mills Filed the Most Substantive Items

Legislator resolutions are focused on an issue rather than honoring an individual or organization. Out of the 680 resolutions filed in 2014, only 99 resolutions fell in this category, (15 percent of all resolutions filed). Of these resolutions 26 expressed support/opposition to legislation pending in Albany, City of Buffalo or support in general for another organizations efforts, 36 addressed routine county issues such as reorganizing staff, board appointments, setting public hearings, transferring surplus property. Very few resolutions proposed new ideas or innovative approaches to improve the operation of county government.

Most likely Legislator Mills is number one in this category due to his position as Chair of the Legislature. The same may be true for Legislator Joseph Lorigo being in second place who serves as the Majority Leader.

The ranking for filing substantive items is as follows:

John Mills—36

Joseph Lorigo—21

Betty Jean Grant—10

Barbara Miller-Williams—7

Lynn Dixon—6

Patrick Burke—5

Ed Rath, Peter Savage, Kevin Hardwick—4

Ted Morton—2

Thomas Loughran—0

I don’t think that there is enough county related work for legislators so they create busy work by introducing Resolutions that troll for votes by honoring people and symbolically call upon other levels of government to do something.

The County Budget

In addition to acting on local laws a big responsibility of the County Legislature is to approve a County budget. While passing a budget is important, the reality is that County officials have very little say over the County budget as 90 percent of the budget is mandated by the state and federal government.

The total county budget is about $1.4 billion of which county officials have a say over only $120 million. The legislature’s amendments to the county executives proposed budget the past three years were:

2014—$2.1 million cut, reducing the county tax rate from $5.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $4.99.

2013—$467,239 was shifted to cover the cost of additional jobs at the Erie County Board of Elections and increased aid to cultural agencies.

In 2012 the legislature changed $8.5 million of the county executive’s proposed budget.

The legislature the past few years has typically changed less than one percent of the County Executive’s proposed budget.

Can We Have Issue Focused Elections?

We have eleven County Legislators who serve four year terms. Eight members earn $42,500 per year, the Majority and Minority Leader earn $47,500 and the Chair Person earns $52,500.

Sadly not every incumbent is being challenged for the office they hold. For the positions that are being contested there needs to be opportunities for discussions and debates to take place.

Some questions that should be asked of candidates:

• When 90 percent of the County $1.4 billion budget is state/federal mandated and County officials have control over a small portion, do we really need County government? Especially since the Legislature typically changes less than one percent of the County Executive’s proposed budget.

• When only 15 percent of the resolutions filed by legislators deal with substantive items, do we really need County government?

• Do you support ending the practice of legislative resolutions that honor people and community organizations?

• Do you support ending the practice of adjourning legislative meetings in honor of individuals that have passed away?

• Do you support term limits for all County elected positions?

• Do you support ethics reform banning government officials for accepting any gifts regardless of the dollar amount?

• Do you support having an independent commission draw legislative district lines?

• Do you support public financing of elections as a way to reduce the impact of special interest money in elections?

Paul Wolf, is an attorney and the Founder of the Center For Reinventing Government,

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