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Canajoharie, NY ,

County debates powers

Thursday, January 09, 2014 - Updated: 10:04 AM


For the C-S-E

FONDA -- Questions about the powers defined in the Montgomery County Charter for its legislators and Executive Matthew Ossenfort were fleshed out in a Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday.

Topics ranged from representatives and appointments to whether the legislature will establish a threshold for Ossenfort in regard to contract spending.

"There are a lot of questions about the county charter, and what certain sections mean," said legislature Chairman Thomas Quackenbush of District 2.

He invited former Charter Commission Chairman Dustin Swanger to the meeting to share the commission's intent while writing the document.

"Whether or not I agree with what you say, I want to know what the intent of the charter commission was," Quackenbush said to Swanger. "I'm not holding you to anything, but you attended and chaired every meeting [of the commission]."

There isn't a parameter in the charter about a threshold for contracts that can be signed by Ossenfort without first obtaining legislative approval. But, there was discussion about whether one was appropriate.

Swanger said there was a reason it wasn't included, though there was a recognition about checks and balances.

"We had quite a discussion about this. We want the executive to be able to move forward and run the county -- it's what he was hired by the people to do," Swanger said. "We talked about the balance of power without tying the executive's hands, but we didn't include it in the charter because it had to be approved by the voters, so that means to change it, it's a huge process."

Ossenfort said he's willing to work with the legislature on the issue, even suggesting a $100,000 limit. He held off on signing "large" contracts that came across his desk Tuesday "out of respect for the legislature and the scheduled discussion."

But, Ossenfort questioned whether establishing a threshold would be considered diminishing his powers established in the charter. While county Attorney Douglas Landon was asked to research it further, Ossenfort said preliminary discussions with other county executives indicated its a matter that's been fought and overruled in court.

District 6 Legislator John Duchessi said he doesn't support a threshold.

"There is a separation of executive and legislative authority. When you talk about setting a dollar amount, despite good intentions, it takes away from that division," he said.

District 9 Legislator Alex Kuchis said, "If it's been proven in court that it violates the charter, then we can't establish a threshold."

Quackenbush said it wasn't a decision that had to be made Tuesday, but it was something that could be further considered as the legislature develops an administrative code required by the charter.

Regardless, Ossenfort is required to follow procurement policies established by state law, and must stay within spending in the adopted budget. Should line items run out, he'd have to ask the legislature to appropriate more money.

On appointments, Swanger said the commission's firm intent was for it to be an executive choice subject to legislative approval, except for those listed in the charter.

Concerns were aired late last year whether the charter would truncate or terminate appointments in cases where the charter conflicted with existing local laws. The charter says it supersedes local laws in cases where they conflict, but not state law.

In that regard, Landon researched appointments of the applicable categories. His opinion was the terms would continue until expiring, then new appointments will be made pursuant to the charter.

"The local law may be in conflict with the charter now, but it was not in conflict at the time it was made, so the appointee needs due process," he said.

Ossenfort said he didn't anticipate changing them right now anyway.

"I'm taking my time to get to know the departments, their structure, and the people. Rather than come in with an ax, I thought the right thing to do moving forward would be to continue the appointments," he said.

Quackenbush questioned whether Ossenfort was also empowered in the charter to appoint representatives for things like the local fire advisory board, and the county's health insurance trust. Quackenbush was the president of the trust board during his tenure on the now-defunct board of supervisors.

Swanger said the commission didn't have a discussion on all possible scenarios of appointments such as this, but reiterated his aforementioned opinion about the commission's intent on appointments.

After 30 minutes of discussion on it, Duchessi said, "This is becoming tortuous. It's not worth fighting for."

Duchessi added that it was maybe something of interest to Quackenbush because appointments were one of his former functions as a supervisor; a job "you were voted out of."

Quackenbush refuted that. He pointed out his recognition earlier in the meeting that the voters wanted a single boss in the county, and that was Ossenfort.

"I'm less concerned about who the appointments are, and most concerned about the process and keeping to the intent of the charter," Ossenfort said.


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