Legislators re-consider attorney staffing
PENN YAN—The Yates County Legislature resumed debate over whether or not the county should revert back to a part-time district attorney position during their meeting Monday, April 8. Resident Gary Montgomery spoke during the public comment section of the meeting stating his disappointment with the legislature in seemingly dismissing an opportunity to look further into the data around the situation.
The discussion originally began during last year’s budget workshops, where members of the legislature wanted to see if going to a part-time district attorney could avoid a state mandated increase in the district attorney’s salary. The board had discussed the issue again during the public safety committee meeting Monday, April 1, where County Administrator Sarah Purdy had said it would be possible, but she would not recommend doing so. During that meeting, the legislators in attendance did not express any interest in pursuing the matter any further.
Montgomery, however, provided data showing the number or convictions decreasing since the county went to a full-time position in 2001, while the costs associated have gone up. He said the taxpayers deserve more of an explanation than just saying “it is obvious we need a full-time district attorney.”
“You need to run this $40 million business on data and facts rather than what feels good,” Montgomery said.
Legislator Mark Morris agreed, saying he was not present at the public safety meeting when the issue was discussed. He said he is concerned the legislature has not looked at any real data, and suggested holding public safety meetings later in the day so more people from the public would be able to attend.
“We need to keep all of our options open when it comes to reducing costs,” Morris said.
Legislator Donna Alexander, who is also the chair of the public safety committee, said the legislature had previously tried holding meetings in the evening without much increase in public attendance. She said criminal convictions take a great deal of time for the district attorney to prosecute, and their work involves more than what goes on in the courtroom. Alexander said there may be a need for special prosecutors should the county go to a part-time district attorney.
Purdy said back in 2001, one of the most compelling reasons for converting the position to full-time was the attorney was working more than a full-time workweek, but was still paid as a part-time employee. County Chairman Taylor Fitch said the legislature owes it to the county to keep the position full-time.
“That position needs to be full time for the DA to do a good job for the citizens of our county,” Fitch said.
Legislator Robert Schwarting said the legislature exercises due dilligence when it comes to looking at data around the issue. He said he believes the legislature could find “compelling reasons” in the data for why keeping a full-time district attorney is necessary, suggesting the legislature could compile it in a small document for public review.
In other business:
• The legislature agreed to send a letter to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) asking them to take safety considerations in regards to a project by Inergy to store natural gas in salt caverns in the town of Reading. Joseph Campbell of Gas Free Seneca spoke asking the legislature to send this letter despite the project being exclusively in Schuyler County. He said the project will affect Yates and the Finger Lakes region as a whole, and that his group is asking the DEC to deny the permit for the project outright. Barbara Schiesser, Jack Ossont, Peter Gamba and Llewellyn Lafford also spoke in support of a letter to the DEC.
Legislators Rick Willson and Tim Dennis were the only votes against the measure. Dennis said the legislature has not heard anything from the other side of the argument, while Willson said natural gas is a necessary commodity.
“I have more faith in DEC than I do about people worrying or fear mongering,” Willson said “Let them do their job.”
Fitch said while he agrees with some of the points Willson made, he still supports the letter in order to encourage the DEC to “do their job and do it properly.” He said the DEC has been understaffed and some of the new employees do not have the experience or knowledge of the Finger Lakes area.
• Stan Olevnik spoke about a problem he is having with Finger Lakes Railway not allowing one of his clients to use a railway crossing located on his land to access his own property. Olevnik said the crossing has been there for more than 50 years and the neighbor to the north has been granted access to the property to use it. He said the land is valued at more than $100,000 and there is an interested buyer looking to build a $1.5 million house on the property, but he is still having problems with the railway company. The legislature agreed to look into the issue and see what they would be able to do to remedy the situation.
• President of the Keuka Lake Association Bill Laffin spoke about the proposed invasive species law that was taken off the agenda for revision. He said the time for regulations like this is now and anyone seeing this as “feel good legislation” is underestimating the long-term problems of an invasive species. Jeff Kennedy of Morgan Marine spoke against the law, saying his employees are at risk for fines and incarceration just for doing their job. Kennedy advocated education to stop the spread of invasive species rather than a law enforcement approach. Bob Corcoran said without having laws in place, it will be very difficult to deal with an invasive species like hydrilla.
“Education is very important, but the law educates,” Corcoran said.
Cutline: Resident Gary Montgomery said the Yates County Legislature needs to take another look at changing the district attorney to part-time and use statistical data to make their decision during their meeting Monday, April 8.