Court Faults County Executive's Practice of Ignoring Laws Enacted by Board of Legislators
Judge Rules Astorino Cannot Evade a Law without Convincing a Court to Invalidate It
WHITE PLAINS, NY – Westchester County Court Judge Barry E. Warhit told lawyers for County Executive Robert P. Astorino on Wednesday that Astorino did not have the right to disobey a law enacted by the Westchester County Board of Legislators (WCBoL) without filing a lawsuit against the WCBoL and convincing a court that the law is somehow invalid.
The critical ruling came in a lawsuit filed by three leaders of the WCBoL —Chairman Jenkins (D-Yonkers), Vice Chair Lyndon Williams (D-Mount Vernon) and Majority Leader Peter Harckham (D-Katonah)—seeking to force Astorino and his Administration to comply, implement and enforce the laws of Westchester. Since taking office in 2010, Astorino has repeatedly ignored laws passed by the WCBoL, justifying his actions simply by informing the WCBoL that he believes a particular law is “null and void” or “non-operative.” The court’s ruling Wednesday that the WCBoL is a “necessary party” makes clear that only courts have the authority to declare laws invalid and that a ruling striking down a law can be made only in a lawsuit initiated by Astorino, which names the WCBoL.
In other words, Judge Warhit’s ruling establishes that if Astorino believes a WCBoL law is invalid—in this case, a law changing the composition and procedures of the County’s Board of Acquisition and Contract (A&C)—he must initiate a legal action and convince a court to strike down the law. Unless and until he does that, he must obey it.
“Along with my two colleagues from the Board of Legislators, I am gratified that the judge has affirmed this simple fact—that a law is a law until it is properly challenged and legally invalidated,” said Legislator Williams, a practicing attorney. “Each step in this lawsuit brings us closer to clarity in terms of the business of governance for the residents of Westchester.”
Judge Warhit ordered both sides to return to court on August 13 to give Astorino time to decide whether he wants to sue the WCBoL and seek to challenge the validity of the law regarding A&C. If he does, the judge will give him additional time to prepare his lawsuit, which would technically be filed as a "counterclaim" in the pending action.
The judge noted that having Astorino’s current counsel, the County Attorney, representing him in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate one of the WCBoL's laws could present a conflict of interest, since the County Attorney also serves as the WCBoL’s legal advisor.
Astorino would need WCBoL authorization to retain outside counsel for any legal matters regarding the business of the County.
The practice of Astorino and members of his Administration ignoring the County Charter and laws of Westchester has frustrated members of the Board of Legislators on a number of occasions. At the root of this lawsuit is a conflict regarding the A&C Board, which handles contracts for capital projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars yearly for Westchester. Astorino has refused to comply with provisions in 2012 BOL legislation that require him to follow certain procedures in how the A&C Board conducts its business. By ignoring those provisions, he has essentially used A&C as a pocket veto to kill off contracts authorized by the WCBoL.
“If County Executive Astorino simply upheld and followed the laws of Westchester, as he swore to do when he took his oath of office, we would not be in this position today,” said WCBoL Chairman Jenkins. “Now, he can decide if he wants to try to overturn the A&C law in court, using taxpayer dollars in the effort.”