Ulster Legislature Term Limit Turmoil Continues

In March, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro signed into legislation a local law limiting county legislatures, comptroller and executive to 12-year terms. Now, Ulster County (UC) may not be too far behind their own local law.

Ulster County Legislature Minority Leader Ken Ronk introduced a local law limiting the terms of 23 county legislators, comptroller and executive to take effect in 2020. However, the imaginary line between local law and referendum is debatable within the legislature.

To enact a referendum, the imposed legislation would be shown to the electorate, allowing their opinions to impact the direct decision. However, New York State (NYS) law explains that unless there is an abolition of office, changes are made to nominations and elections, the removal of an elected official or if the salary of an elected official is subject to change while they are in office, it is unjust to use a referendum. 

“You might argue that it is subject to referendum but in this case, NYS law is pretty clear: the establishment of term limits so long as they don’t diminish the current term of an office holder is not subject to referendum,” Molinaro said. “Quite frankly, if a term limit vote was put before the public it would pass overwhelmingly.”

This local law has remained in a state of limbo within the UC Legislature since September 2018. In September, lawmakers voted 14-8 towards a referendum of voters, but this vote was vetoed in November 2018 by former County Executive Michael Hein, as it would violate NYS law. 

In December 2018, lawmakers overrode Hein’s veto with a 16 to 5 vote. On the other hand, even with the override, Hein was correct in his decision.

“Twelve-year term limits could be seen as being a little bit long for those who are strident to supporting term limits, and for others it may not seem long enough, which means for us it seems about right,” Molinaro said. “The individuals can consume a little bit too much power and become sort of apathetic, and can also feel that as office holders if they’re there too long they can feel full of themselves.” 

Term limits may be implemented for a number of reasons, however in UC the reasoning remains unclear but is guessed to be similar to Dutchess County’s. 

“This is not meant to sound partisan, but it is comical. You had the republican legislature in Ulster approve term limits via referendum, the democratic county executive said ‘no, it’s not permissible by referendum’, so ultimately Michael Hein was right,” Molinaro said. “In Dutchess, you had the republican legislature propose term limits without referendum, but the democratic legislature members demanded that it be subject to referendum, and again, it is not.”

A resolution to hold a public hearing on the proposed local law will be considered by the Legislature’s Laws and Rules Committee on April 15, according to the Daily Freeman. If the committee signs off, the proposal will be apart of the Legislature’s April 16 agenda. 

While a public opinion period could provide beneficial perspective to the proposal, NYS law bars the UC legislature from doing so. 

“Term limits, at least at our level, for the right amount of time allows a turnover in offices, recognition that no one is more important than the voter, and at the end of the day, allows for new fresh ideas to be circulated through the legislature and the county government,” Molinaro said.