By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO April 18, 2003 After two and a half months of contemplation, Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge Nicholas Clemente has issued a decision in the lawsuit filed by Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner Tim Hill against Sullivan County.
However, the decision is an interim one. The final decision likely will be issued at a hearing on June 19.
Late last year, the Sullivan County Legislature cut their budget, eliminating several positions, including the clerks in the Board of Elections. Hill filed a lawsuit seeking to get those positions restored. He also wanted the county to pay his attorney, Perry Meltzer, all legal fees.
Clemente released his interim decision last Friday. The county wanted the suit dismissed, but Clemente ruled that it has standing to continue. The decision states that while the County Legislature does not have the power to set the number of employees in the Board of Elections, it does have the right to set a budget.
Clemente concluded that the main issue is whether or not the Legislatures actions have rendered the Board of Elections unable to do its job. He ordered a hearing to be held on Thursday, June 19 to determine if the board can function within their 2003 budget allocations.
I am very pleased but not surprised by the decision, commented Hill. The ramifications [of the cuts] are still to be seen. This decision puts the [Legislature] on notice that they were usurping our rights. What they did was contrary to law. This office will be made whole again.
What they [the legislators] overlooked was the impacts that a handful of people felt as they played a political game, Hill continued. These few and their families paid the price for this. It is sad that it had to arrive at this.
Nothing in the decision indicates that the Legislature is guilty of any wrongdoings, remarked County Attorney Ira Cohen. The court ruled that it is in the power of the Legislature to set the budget. It is incumbent upon the board to use that money as they see fit. They have to work within their budget. Mr. Hill has an obligation to get together with [Republican Elections Commissioner] Mrs. [Fran] Thalmann, not for a political purpose, but to do what has been asked of them since January: appropriate the money given to them. He has yet to do that.
Absent of this ruling, the Legislature meets with the Board of Elections regularly to make sure they run smoothly, Cohen continued. This year is the added responsibility of redistricting. There has been informal meetings between some legislators and Mrs. Thalmann to discuss getting some help. There will always be sufficient funding to run the office.
Cohen also offered his thoughts on the decision itself. I dont agree that the case has a legal issue on standing, Cohen commented. I am pleased that no determination was made that the Legislature did anything wrong. This decision is interim it is not appealable. Well wait and see how it works out. I suspect there will be no further litigation in this matter.
Lastly, Cohen addressed Hill and his remarks. Mr. Hill missed the point, he said. There was no finding that the Legislature usurped his power. This has not been about political games but about public service.
Thalmann did not join in the lawsuit, which was another reason the county wanted the suit dismissed. According to state law, for an action to be taken by the Board, both commissioners must agree.
Thalmann did not comment on the decision but said, I have already spoken with some of the legislators, and I have confidence that they will address our ongoing needs.