Putnam Strengthens County Executive Powers

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Montgomery criticizes lack of public role in revisions

Putnam legislators on Tuesday (March 1) voted 7-1 to increase the county executive’s authority to make contracts and control central administrative functions, although they also demanded the executive immediately notify the Legislature when declaring an emergency.

The Legislature acted, during its formal monthly meeting in Carmel, by amending the county charter. One member missed the meeting.

Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown and parts of Putnam Valley and is the sole Democrat on the panel, voiced the “no” vote. 

Little discussion accompanied the vote on amending the charter, a guidebook on the nitty-gritty of county government. But Montgomery said her objections stem from “how we’re going about changing the charter and the lack of public involvement.”

She explained that when the county’s Charter Review Commission met in December, it announced its meeting in advance but provided no agenda, ensuring that “the public has no idea” of what was going on. Further, she said, while anyone can come to committee meetings where legislators discuss such matters as charter revisions, during the COVID crisis “the process has been anything but open.” 

For more than a year, legislative meetings occurred only via a shaky audio connection and legislators banned questions from the public. Once in-person meetings resumed, they often took place in a cramped room, where the county did not require masks.

Previously, the charter allowed the county executive to “make, sign, and implement all contracts on behalf of the county within authorized appropriations.” The changes approved Tuesday extend that authority to all contracts (not only those tied to specific appropriations) “involving expenditures of county funds” and permit the executive to delegate power over contracts to someone else “for specific matters,” which are not identified.

The county executive has the authority to “supervise all central administrative services for the county government,” such as data processing, mail operations, printing and support functions, but now also can “exercise control over” them. 

When questions about that modification arose Feb. 9 at a legislative Rules Committee meeting, Robert Firriolo, the Legislature’s lawyer, said the term “supervise” seemed vague, so the charter commission wanted to clarify that an administrative service or function “is under the control of the county executive.” 

Although they bolster the county executive’s power over contracts and internal services, the revisions also direct the executive to immediately notify the Legislature when declaring an emergency, such as in event of severe weather or other threat to “life, health or safety.”

“It’s imposing an additional obligation of notice,” Firriolo told the Rules Committee in February. “The important point is that it [notification] get to the Legislature, however the county executive needs [to act] to make that happen.”

Montgomery replied to him that, “in the case of an emergency,” steps for notification “should be defined. It’s been my experience that I don’t get informed about anything.”

The Charter Review Commission was created in December 2020 with four members: Legislator Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac, who became commission chair and now chairs the Legislature; Legislator Toni Addonizio of Kent, who chaired the Legislature in 2020 and 2021; Firriolo; and Jennifer Bumgarner, the county attorney. 

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