UPDATE: Bello vetoes budget amendments, criticizes legislature’s ‘party politics,’ ‘slush fund’

Local Politics

Update:

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello released a statement at 7:03 p.m. Thursday saying:

The County Legislature leadership came to me with an ultimatum, either I could choose where the money came from for their fund or they had the votes lined up to slash County departments to make it happen. I worked in good faith to protect the taxpayers of our community to identify areas that would ensure the least amount of damage to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other critical programs and services. To suggest that creating this fund was my idea is outrageous, not true and defies logic.  Taxpayers deserve better than politics as usual, and I will stand up for taxpayers every day of the week.

Tonight’s override vote, scheduled with less than 15 minutes notice and after regular business hours, represents the old way of operating County government. This is just the latest example of the County Legislature prioritizing their power and political games over the residents of Monroe County. 

Minority Leader Yversha Roman sent out a statement at 7:36 p.m. Thursday, saying:

“With only 12 minutes notice to legislators and no notice to the public, the Monroe County Legislature Clerk called a meeting Thursday to override County Executive Adam Bello’s vetoes. It’s no wonder they did not want citizens to watch them approve an election-year slush fund that could easily become a partisan, corrupt member-item system. We should fund the issues and causes we want in an equitable and collaborative manner.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Original story:

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) –- Monroe County Executive Adam Bello announced Thursday he would veto two amendments made to the 2021 county budget, by the county legislature Tuesday.

The two amendments included the creation of a $2.5 million contingency fund for the legislature, plus legislature oversight over Board of Elections staffing and salaries.

“This is not an act of bipartisanship or good faith collaboration,” Bello said. “This was an act of holding taxpayers hostage in a pandemic. I worked in good faith to identify areas that would ensure the least amount of damage in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Bello didn’t sign the 2021 county budget Tuesday night, once approved by the legislature. Officials from the county executive’s office said he would need time to review amendments made to the budget. The proposed budget totaled $1.2 billion.

Bello said he expects his vetoes would be overwritten, due to the Republican majority in the legislature, but said it was his duty to recognize the issue publicly.

“They have the votes to do that, but taxpayers deserve better than this. I have a responsibility to stand up when I see something wrong, and this is wrong,” Bello said.

One of the amendments was a newly-proposed “Community Contingency Fund” which would provide up to $2.5 million for the GOP-led legislature. In a press release Tuesday night, Republicans said “The main purpose of this fund is to ensure that there is ample funding for the County Legislature to address the rapidly changing needs and circumstances of the entire Monroe County community.”

“This [contingency fund], along with an illegal amendment to the board of elections amendment, exposed the fact that bipartisanship and cooperation are nothing more than talking point to some members,” Bello said. “The county legislature yet again chose to operate under a veil of secrecy submitting an amendment at the 11th hour.”

The second amendment Bello will veto is in regards to the Monroe County Board of Elections, dealing with staffing and salaries. It was an amendment that Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner Jaclyn Ortiz called illegal during a Thursday morning press conference.

“I trust the judgment of our board of elections commissioners Oritz and [Natalie] Shepperd,” Bello said. “The proposal that was submitted, I trust them to run the board of elections and I think they did a phenomenal job managing a very difficult situation this year. The law actually spells this out, that the commissioners of the board of elections — it’s up to them how to spend the appropriations.”

Members of the county legislature’s Black and Asian Caucus, created after a split on Democratic leadership, asked for Ortiz to resign — something she said Wednesday she would not do.

“This is simply the wrong way,” Bello said. “On behalf of Monroe County taxpayers, I will not let that stand and I will be vetoing both amendments today.”

Bello said the budget was still adopted and approved, but the two amendments would not be included in the final budget, until the county legislature overrides them — which is expected.

Monroe County Minority Leader Yversha Roman released a statement condemning the contingency fund Tuesday night, echoing the calls of a “slush fund.” Roman told News 8 this contingency fund was too vague – and calls it “pork barrel” politics.

“How did we get those dollars, how it is divided up in between legislators was really vague,” she said.

Roman also noted that the contingency fund for all legislators to use doesn’t make sense when there is a policy that allows a legislator to submit legislation or referral any time, asking for particular need and specific funds in the county, advocating for constituents.

Watch the full press conference:

Monroe County Legislature Rachel Barnhart echoed Roman’s sentiment in a Thursday statement:

“I’m concerned that the money will be used as election-year pork for legislators to sprinkle around their districts, something a few of my colleagues made clear in their comments during Tuesday’s meeting. This type of thing is insidious because it often rewards worthy things, but also rewards politicians giving the ‘gift.’ These funds can also be used as a weapon to punish legislators in the minority and boost electoral chances of incumbents/challengers aligned with the majority. A better process is to submit legislation for items to be funded as needed, instead of creating a $2.5 million slush fund during a pandemic.”

Bello says partisan politics has plagued his administration since he was sworn into office earlier his year.

“These are the issues that I’m focused on as county executive while members of the county legislature continuously focus solely on control, power, and politics,” Bello said. “I have been faced with nothing but the most dysfunctional county legislature I’ve seen in my lifetime, and at some point we have to rise above politics and get the job done and do it right. I am delighted that my budget passed, but these amendments, the way they were done, was not good government.”

Prior to the creation of the Black and Asian Caucus in the legislature, Democrats were split over the summer on who should become the Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner. Democrats were further divided in the legislature over a dispute on who should be the Minority Leader in the county body of government.

The Monroe County Democratic Committee released a statement in support of Ortiz Thursday afternoon:

“In July, the Monroe County Democratic Committee elected Jackie Ortiz with historic and overwhelming support, earning their confidence and trust. In turn, she led her team and delivered one of the most efficient and well-run elections in the middle of a pandemic. 

The proposed BOE amendment to the County’s 2021 Budget has no legal basis. With support from case law, NYS Statue clearly provides Election Commissioners sole discretion of operations and personnel decisions at the Board of Elections. MCDC elected Commissioner Ortiz to do just that. 

“It’s clear, after attempting to overstep their legal authority alongside Republicans in the Monroe County Legislature, members of the Black and Asian Caucus have resulted in political grandstanding and potential elections tampering,” said Democratic Chairman Zach King. “After a very successful General Election that saw historic rates of absentees and early voting, I have complete confidence in the ability of Commissioner Ortiz to execute the duties of her office justly.”

The proposed changes would have delivered senior positions to Republicans (4 Republicans to 1 Democrat), as well as reduce the diversity and pay balance of the staff at the Board of Elections. These changes would vastly upset the balance of power in a bipartisan entity that is the hallmark of fair elections and calls into question the true motives of a group of Legislators who have continued to caucus with Republicans. 

Legislator Flagler-Mitchell called for Chairman King’s resignation last month and is calling for Commissioner Ortiz’s resignation this month. We look forward to seeing who’s resignation he calls for in January.”

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.

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