Despite his recent vow to “micromanage” county government, the new chairman of the Erie County Legislature on Thursday clarified that his actual aim will be to whip the Legislature itself into shape so that it does a better job of overseeing administrative affairs.
But even with the change in language from Republican John J. Mills of Orchard Park, the GOP made clear that the Poloncarz administration can expect a more assertive opposition now that Republicans are running the chamber for the first time in decades.
Mills was picked by his GOP-aligned colleagues to head the Legislature shortly after they gained the majority in last November’s election. That choice was ratified Thursday in a unanimous vote at the Legislature’s reorganization meeting, marking the first time since 1982 that the GOP has controlled the chamber without the help of disaffected Democrats.
“We’re not going to do business as usual,” Mills, the former minority leader, told The Buffalo News in a brief interview before being elected to the Legislature’s top post.
“We intend to do things differently and run county government more like a business.”
Last month, the three-term lawmaker told a local television station that, once installed, the new GOP-aligned majority planned to micromanage county government. That prompted a terse response from County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, a Democrat, who insisted that mircromanaging was not in the purview of the Legislature.
“I guess oversight was more appropriate than micromanaging, because a lot of people were asking what I was talking about,” Mills said Thursday.
“I’m just saying, run this house more like a business. … That’s kind of where we’re going with this.”
But streamlining the Legislature’s operations also will allow for more scrutiny of the administration, said Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, who was unanimously elected majority leader by his colleagues.
“For the past two years, the county executive has had a Legislature that rubber-stamped everything that he wanted,” Lorigo said.
“We’re not saying that we’re going to try to be obstructionists, but we want to look at things. We want to take a closer look, have an actual debate.
“… See where the money is going, see where we’re applying things to and have a more active role.”
Mills said that this includes making sure the county’s road fund – a source of friction between GOP-aligned lawmakers and the Poloncarz administration last year – is fully funded in 2014.
Poloncarz, who attended Thursday’s swearing-in of the new Legislature, confirmed that just before Christmas, he restored the 10 percent in funding that he had cut for roads, culturals, water and sewers.
“It was released last week when we had final sales tax numbers for the first portion of December, which shows we will end up with a very small surplus,” Poloncarz said.
Two other sources of conflict also appear to be off the table, at least temporarily. Republicans, when they were in the minority, strongly opposed Poloncarz and the Democrats on how to reorganize the Department of Social Services and authorizing the administration to delay a portion of the county’s 2014 state pension payments in order to help close a nearly $30 million budget gap.
But Mills and Lorigo on Thursday called those disagreements water under the bridge, at least for for now.
“Once this body approved the ability to enter into that pension program, I don’t believe we can go back on that,” Lorigo said.
“The county executive said he would use that as an absolute last resort, and we’re going to hold him to it.”
Mills said the only way the new majority could revisit the Social Services dispute – in which they contended that the administration should have hired nine caseworkers, instead of six caseworkers and three supervisors – would be during the 2015 budget process. That dispute erupted after a second child in 16 months was killed by an acquaintance even though Child Protective Services had been involved with the families.
The budget process that would let the new majority take another look at Social Services funding won’t begin until the fall.
Mills said the new majority will hire a part-time budget analyst to go over the numbers Poloncarz presents. Combined with the financial scrutiny from Republican County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw, that could provide another source of friction, though the county executive expressed confidence Thursday that he could work with the new majority.
Meanwhile, as is customary, lawmakers presented a united front during the swearing-in ceremony, with those on opposite sides of the aisle offering bipartisan praise for the Legislature’s new leadership..
Outgoing Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, lauded her successor as possessing wisdom, patience and tolerance. “There could not have been a better choice,” she said of Mills’ selection as chairman.
Nevertheless, Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, reminded Mills that he succeeds three women in the post – herself, Grant and Barbara Miller-Williams – all of whom represent parts of Buffalo, and that the suburban-dominated new majority cannot ignore the needs of the city. Miller-Williams rejoined the Legislature after a two-year absence..
Three years ago, she angered Democratic colleagues when she struck an alliance with Legislature Republicans and then-County Executive Chris Collins in order to become chairwoman. She expressed skepticism Thursday when asked by The News if she anticipated more cohesion amongst Democratic lawmakers now that they are in the minority.
“I don’t anticipate that because when the Democrats were the majority there were a lot of internal problems that existed. Those problems have not resolved themselves,” Miller-Williams said.
Despite any lingering bitterness, Miller-Williams joined the rest of her Democratic colleagues – including newcomer Patrick B. Burke of South Buffalo – in unanimously selecting Grant to serve as minority leader.
Also joining the Legislature for the first time Thursday was Ted Morton, a Republican from Depew who took over the seat that was formerly held by Democrat Terrence D. McCracken, who did not seek re-election last November.
That victory – along with support from Lorigo, a Conservative, and Independence Party member Lynne M. Dixon – was enough to give Republicans control.
It’s the first time that Republicans – without the help of the courts or disaffected Democrats – have controlled the Legislature since after the 1981 elections.
The GOP did take control in 2002, thanks to a weighted-voting system imposed by a federal judge in a redistricting dispute and the decision of then-Democratic Legislator Albert DeBenedetti to align with the Republicans and then-County Executive Joel A. Giambra.
A year later, the GOP retained control when then-Legislator Charles M. Swanick – who had served as chairman while a Democrat – switched parties in a deal to regain the gavel while giving Republicans a majority.
Thursday marked the first time in more than three decades that Republicans took over without Democrats crossing the aisle.