Sheriff, DA accuse body of overreach
Putnam legislators on Tuesday (July 6) voted 7 to 1 to change the county charter, despite protests from the sheriff and district attorney that the revisions conflict with their authority and warnings from Legislator Nancy Montgomery that the amendment process ignored the public.
Montgomery cast the lone “no” vote. The only Democrat on the nine-person Legislature, she represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley. Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson missed the meeting, the first conducted in-person after 15 months of remote meetings during the pandemic.
The county can amend the charter at any time but has to at least consider changes every 10 years. The last formal review occurred in 2010-11. Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell must hold a public hearing on the changes before she can sign the amended charter into law.
One revision adopted Tuesday simply adds “submitted to the county Legislature” after the word “appointments” in a reference to picking individuals approved by the Legislature to serve in county posts.
Others are more complex. One allows the Legislature to demand audits of county offices and departments “at any time” instead of yearly, as the charter had long specified.
Another, criticized in writing by both Sheriff Robert Langley Jr. and District Attorney Robert Tendy, permits the county Legislature “to require the production or inspection of documents, records, bonds, papers and other information kept” by a county officer or employee. A related change both Langley and Tendy found troublesome says legislators can “establish, review, and approve policies to be followed by all officers and employees.”
In a June 16 memo to legislators, Tendy cited concerns that the amendment on producing information “would give the Legislature the power to obtain records from my office — or the PCSO [Putnam County Sheriff’s Office] — regarding ongoing investigations and active case files. Obviously, this would be in contradiction to state law regarding the duties and responsibilities of my office — which are completely independent from the Legislature.”
Likewise, Tendy wrote, the amendment on departmental policies might “mean that the Legislature could now be involved in numerous activities that are the independent responsibility of the district attorney.”
Two weeks later, also in a memo to legislators, Langley expressed misgivings about the amendments’ “vague language and overreaching authority.” While acknowledging “that the Legislature has some investigative powers” he maintained that these “cannot interfere with” his responsibilities. He urged that the amendment on disclosing information be tweaked to recognize the limits to the Legislature’s authority.
Likewise, he wrote, although the Legislature can set policies on such matters as equal opportunity employment, it “cannot usurp my legal authority over my law enforcement personnel, policies and protocols.” Actually, he added, “public disclosure of sensitive law enforcement procedures and protocols can unnecessarily endanger the lives of officers and the welfare of the general public they are trying to protect.” Again, he asked the legislators to refine the amendments.
Langley also argued in his June memo that “public input should be welcomed,” since the charter revisions offer “an inherent grant of power” to legislators.
Tendy asked that his written comments be included in the record of the charter revision process.
Montgomery pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting that despite Tendy’s request, his comments were not included and that Langley’s were also omitted. She added that in June, she twice asked for the dates of the revision commission’s meetings and its meeting minutes, in vain. Moreover, the commission provided “no report to the Legislature as is customary, in my experience, when any group is commissioned to change the laws of government,” she said.
Furthermore, she observed that the commission consists entirely of Putnam County officials. “This should have been a collaborative effort made up of members of local government and the public — of every party,” and ban participation by current county government members, as other counties do when forming charter commissions, she remarked. “Instead, this commission is exclusive to county government and one party [the Republicans]. That is dangerous governing.”
When the Legislature created a revision commission last December, it named as members Legislator Toni Addonizio of Kent, who chairs the Legislature; Legislator Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac, who chairs the legislative Rules Committee; Robert Firriolo, the Legislature’s lawyer; and Jennifer Bumgarner, the county attorney.
According to Sullivan, the commission sent a letter to town supervisors, Republicans and Democrats alike, inviting them to submit suggestions or questions. But Montgomery said that dispatching a single letter hardly qualifies as involving local officials.
Sullivan also called Montgomery’s belief that the commission is a one-party affair “completely untrue” and said a memo went out to all legislators a few days before the Tuesday meeting to announce a charter commission session on Thursday (July 8). “It’s not unusual for her to sort of mislead and try to confuse people,” he said, subsequently accusing Montgomery of “bringing up so many untruths and misrepresentations.”
In a memo he sent to legislative colleagues on Saturday (July 3) and read aloud on Tuesday, Sullivan castigated the sheriff, as well, describing Langley’s views as “silly.” Sullivan argued that the amendments contain nothing that permits other branches of county government “to interfere with the constitutional and law-enforcement duties of the sheriff” and that “in suggesting otherwise, this sheriff is just playing politics in an election year and playing on the public’s fears that their safety will be compromised, as he so often does.”
Langley, like Montgomery, is a Democrat and Philipstown resident seeking re-election in the November election.
Sullivan further asserted that Langley has repeatedly withheld information. “This Legislature will not allow this sheriff to operate like the secret police,” Sullivan emphasized. “And we will persist in our efforts to obtain from him the information to which we are entitled, for the benefit of the citizens and taxpayers of Putnam County.”
Legislator Amy Sayegh of Mahopac declared that “there’s no conflict with state law” in the amendments.
Concurring, Legislator Carl Albano of Carmel, a Rules Committee member, assured residents that the charter “is a living document. If anyone has recommendations or likes changes to be made, we welcome it. Come to our committee meetings. Send us suggestions. It’s open. We can change it any time.”