It was an unusual but important day on Friday at the Westchester County Board of Legislators (BOL). The good news is that 9 county legislators - 7 Republicans and 2 Democrats - joined together to pass a bipartisan budget. This budget did not increase the property tax levy, protected the county's AAA bond rating and preserved essential services, which was difficult in this still struggling economy.
The bad news is that the leadership of the BOL attempted to block our democratic vote on the budget with improper and illegal maneuvers, and then 8 legislators stormed out of the chambers when they were unsuccessful. I was appointed temporary chairman to run the meeting by the majority of the BOL that responsibly remained in their seats, and we then passed a fiscally sound and bipartisan budget that was signed by County Executive Astorino a few hours later.
I'm very sad that the legislative body in which I have proudly served for 15 years was forced into chaos by the legislators that tried to thwart democracy, but I did my best to bring order to the chambers so that our bipartisan majority could do the people's business in a legally proper manner. I worked diligently to help put together this bipartisan coalition that put governing above politics and must point out that the 2 Democrats that joined the coalition - Michael Kaplowitz and Virginia Perez - were true profiles in courage.
Phil Reisman, a famously independent columnist for The Journal News, was in the chambers, and here is his colorful article about the events that transpired:
Westchester legislators in total war
Friday, Dec. 7, 2012— it’s a date that will live in infamy.
Ken Jenkins, the Democratic chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators was torpedoed in a well-planned, political sneak attack that, if it didn’t sink his chances to become county executive, certainly wounded his standing as the board’s peerless “boss.”
There were always rumors of war and skirmishes here and there between Jenkins and Rob Astorino, the current occupant of big office on the 9th floor, but now it’s official: This is total war.
The causes go back a long way, but let’s just stick to the past week. In a partisan frenzy of deletions and add-ons, Jenkins took scissors to Astorino’s proposed 2013 county budget which calls for a zero percent tax increase. When he was done, the zero percent tax increase was still in place, but the document was an unrecognizable mess-- an origami project on acid.
The list of weird stuff seems endless. For one thing, Jenkins restored 126 civil servant jobs that Astorino cut because the CSEA wouldn’t give in to demands that workers pay for a portion of their health care benefits. They currently pay nothing in a world where almost everyone pays at least something.
At the same time, Jenkins eliminated 57 jobs in Astorino’s branch of government—among them two deputy commissioners of social services.
The ostensible reason? They’re all patronage hires and supposedly unworthy. Needless to say, Jenkins did nothing to eliminate the hacks in his own overstuffed domain.
Jenkins wants to pay for his goodies by using the county’s fund balance, even though the balance has been steadily drained since 2006 when it stood at $201 million. The $11 million draw down Jenkins seeks would reduce the balance to $130 million, potentially placing the county’s Triple A bond rating in jeopardy.
A month ago, Astorino weathered the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. On Thursday, he was practically struck dumb by Hurricane Ken. In a hastily called press conference, he used the word, “irresponsible” at least four times to describe the Jenkins-Democratic budget.
In advance of Friday’s board vote, Astorino threatened to veto the entire budget.
More or less agreeing with his assessment were two Democrats on the board of legislators—Mike Kaplowitz of Somers and Virginia Perez of Yonkers.
Working behind the scenes, the Republican leadership on the board formed a coalition with Kaplowitz and Perez giving them nine votes, enough to defeat the Jenkins budget and pass in its place a bipartisan version.
Of the 10 Democrats on the board, Kaplowitz and Perez were perhaps the two most likely to defect. Kaplowitz, a savvy legislator who once chaired the budget committee, has had past run-ins with Jenkins.
Perez was not supported by Jenkins when she first ran in a primary race in Yonkers.
Nevertheless, this took some guts —especially for Perez, a freshman legislator who will certainly face retribution. Indeed, when the Democrats caught wind that something was up, they threatened to undermine her re-election campaign next year and take away her chairmanship of the public safety committee.
On Friday, the GOP trap was set. Seeing that he was outnumbered 9 votes to 8, Jenkins pulled something that was truly bizarre—even for him. He adjourned the board meeting without taking a vote.
He walked out of the chamber. The county clerk and her assistants walked out. All the Democrats walked out except Kaplowitz and Perez.
Because the meeting had not officially ended and because there was still a quorum of nine legislators, the proceedings continued. The pouting Jenkins might have retreated and taken his marbles, but he left behind his gavel, which was seized by Jim Maisano, the GOP minority leader from New Rochelle who became board chairman for a day.
It was as if Jenkins had temporarily fired himself as boss. As far as anybody knew, this was a historic act of self-immolation.
The coalition anticipated that this would happen. They even had a substitute clerk on standby. Maisano stayed up most of the previous night studying the county charter and brushing up on parliamentary procedure.
Assisted by Kaplowitz, Gordon Burrows, the minority whip from Yonkers and County Attorney Robert Meehan, Maisano carefully and deliberately led the coalition through the voting process. The budget passed unanimously and Astorino signed it into law.
Jenkins was outfoxed, but he still registered a junior high-style protest by turning off the chamber lights and microphones. From his closed office, he activated a loud and very annoying buzzer that’s normally used to summon the legislators. It’s a wonder he didn’t launch a stink bomb.
Later he issued a press release saying that the coalition’s actions were “despicable and made a mockery of the legislative process.” In psychology, that’s called “projection.”
Jenkins will probably file a lawsuit over this. That’s been his style since the start.
But now he has a minority of Democrats on his side—and one of them, Bill Ryan, is also running for county executive.
Jenkins will probably live to fight another day. But right now, he’s taking on water.
Reach Phil Reisman at [email protected] or call 914-694-5008
Jim Maisano is the Minority Leader of the Westchester County Board of Legislators. He represents District 11 covering New Rochelle and Pelham. You can follow Jim on Facebook, Twitter or on his Blog. You can contact Jim at 914-995-2826 or [email protected]