Latest flap shows downside of three-person committees

The nine-member Montgomery County Legislature changed its rules of procedure in January to limit the size of legislative committees to three members rather than five. I think that was a mistake and the larger committees should be restored. Here’s why.

At the time, one of the arguments in favor of the reduced size went something like this: If a resolution is passed in committee by a 5-0 tally and sent to the full legislature, a non-committee member legislator coming to a meeting of the full board could say, “It’s already got five votes, so why should I bother voting? It’s a done deal, so my vote won’t matter anyway.” Bottom line: nothing should discourage a legislator from exercising his or her right to vote.

The other reason, which initially bothered me and other members of the media, was that three people do not constitute a quorum of the full board, so advance notification of committee meetings is not a requirement under the NY State’s Open Meeting Law. In fairness, that has turned out not to be a problem; media has received notification and agendas on a timely basis as usual.

At last Tuesday’s meeting of the Education and Government Committee, we saw the downside of the three-person configuration. Legislators Ryan Weitz and Roy Dimond, two of the three committee members, sparred back and forth on a resolution rescinding the appointment of Sara Niccoli to represent Dimond’s legislative district on the Montgomery County Planning Board.

And at this week’s meeting of the full Legislature, which Dimond did not attend, the resolution to rescind the appointment came up again due to a “motion to reconsider;” which needed a super-majority of six votes to pass. It fell short and failed.

Each legislator is allowed to appoint a member of the county planning board to represent his or her legislative district. Dimond wanted to appoint Niccoli, but Weitz opposed the appointment because–as it turns out–Niccoli lives just outside of Dimond’s district. Dimond’s position is that since the legislation forming the Planning Board does not have a residency requirement in it, he–or any other legislator–should be able to appoint whomever he or she wishes, regardless of where that person lives.

The third member of the committee, John M. Duchessi, was absent from the committee meeting. The resolution to rescind Niccoli’s appointment died in committee because it didn’t get two votes..

While Legislature Chairman Martin Kelly, who is an ex-officio member of every legislative committee, could not have cast a deciding vote, his input might have had an effect on the discussion and perhaps avoided the stalemate had he been there. Perhaps not, but we’ll never know.

Even if a resolution passes unanimously in a five-person committee, which apparently means it has enough votes to pass in the full Legislature, there is always the opportunity to discuss the measure before the full board votes on it. No one should be afraid to stick to his or her guns and present an argument that could persuade others to join him or her in voting against it. It’s a bit like being the lone holdout in a jury deliberation, but if a legislator’s opinion on an issue is strong enough, he or she should be willing to fight for it, no matter how many colleagues voted in committee.

As it is, Niccoli’s appointment stands, but eventually could be declared illegal. If that happens, everything the county Planning Board does from here on out could likewise be declared illegal, and therefore null and void. I’m sure no member of the Legislature intends for that to happen, but it very well could, all because a resolution died in committee for lack of a third vote.

Five-member committees would go a long way toward avoiding similar messes in the future. It’s not a foolproof solution, but it’s better than what happened last week.

John Becker

John Becker is both a Reporter and Consulting Editor for The Compass. He and his wife Pat operate Abbey Farms in Amsterdam NY.