Debates over the necessity of the upcoming special election for Ulster County (UC) Executive have revealed a serious need to revise the county charter.
On Tuesday, the Ulster County Legislature decided that April 30 will be the election date in a 14-6 decision. However, the anticipated costs of the special election and its close proximity to the general election calls into question its necessity. Additionally, the vague language of the charter itself leads some to question if UC has the power to call the election themselves.
“It’s really about picking the date, not choosing whether we can or can’t have an election,” said Ulster County Legislator David B. Donaldson, who voted in favor of the election. “The charter says we shall so we shall. Arguing that we shouldn’t have the election isn’t valid.”
Earlier this month, Mike Hein unexpectedly left for Albany to serve as commissioner of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Hein was therefore required by the UC charter to appoint an Acting County Executive to fill the position until a new executive is voted on to replace him. He chose his Deputy Executive and Chief of Staff Adele Reiter.
Since Hein’s premature vacancy occurred more than 180 days before the next general election, a special election was also required by the charter. The newly elected executive would serve out the remainder of Hein’s term until the general election later this year. This provision was put in place to avoid giving an unfair advantage to the appointees. Their incumbency often leads them to be regarded as the natural successor to the position, even though they weren’t voted in.
However, the charter does not explicitly state who has the right to call the election in the first place. It only states that the County Board of Elections will hold the election, but does not specify who has the authority to proclaim it. New York State Election and Public Officer laws require a proclamation from the governor to hold special elections. The decision became a battle between the powers of local versus state governments.
In a blog from the BenCen, Benjamin Center Director and UC charter co-author Gerald Benjamin explains the dilemma that legislators faced during the vote.
“We took advantage of the opportunity given to us in the NYS constitution to create a system for governing ourselves, including a way to fill vacancies in elected office. Now many of us dislike one of the consequences,” Benjamin wrote. “Do we advocate for home rule only when it is convenient?”
Reiter hasn’t yet expressed interest in running for executive herself. In addition, UC Democratic Committee nominee Pat Ryan will likely run unopposed in the April election. Last Saturday the UC Republican Committee failed to nominate a candidate for the position. With the general election merely seven months away, some felt that there are too many elections too soon and at too high of a cost.
“I’m opposed to unnecessarily spending taxpayers’ money,” said UC Legislator Mary Wawro. “We have a fiscal responsibility [as legislators] and even with a budget as big as ours it seems very irresponsible.”
Current estimates on the total cost of the special election between $220,000 and $300,000. This decision decimated the roughly $200,000 in tax expenditure saved from 2018 to 2019. According to the UC Democratic Commissioner of Elections Ashley Dittus, this money comes from the county’s contingency funds which are saved for emergencies since the special election was unaccounted for in the budget.
To further complicate matters, the New York State Senate recently passed an Early Voting bill that allows voters to cast their ballot beginning ten days prior to the election date and ending at the end of two days beforehand. However these extra voting days are currently not funded by the state, meaning the county will have to spend even more money to keep the polls open longer.
Grumblings of potential legal concerns have also caused concerns from both sides of the argument. On one hand, a lawsuit against the county could derail the special election if a judge decides that the charter’s ambiguity forces the county to follow state laws. On the other hand, if the legislature avoided the election the county would have forfeited its right to self-govern which could undercut its power to call a special election in the future.
It’s unlikely that revisions to the charter will come before the special election due to notice requirements before amendments can be voted on. However it’s possible that they could appear on the ballot in November.
The charter would need to explicitly task a county government official with the power to call a special election. To achieve this, the legislature can offer a proposal to the UC Charter Revision Committee who would need a two-thirds majority approval to propose it to voters. The revision committee would also have to hold at least one public hearing no later than a month before the general election. If a majority of voters approve the proposal, the revisions would be implemented.
According to Dittus the general election will be held on November 5, although the early voting polls will be open on October 26. The Democratic primary will be held on June 25 and the date of the Republican primary remains unknown until a candidate is chosen.