Sedacca v Kelly, 2012 NY Slip Op 01319, Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals has ruled that the Nassau County Executive did not have the authority to terminate Commissioners of the Nassau County Assessment Review Commission (ARC), in the absence of cause, prior to the expiration of their fixed, statutory terms.
The ARC consists of nine commissioners appointed by the County Executive subject to approval by the County Legislature and have staggered five-year terms and that no more than six of the commissioners can be enrolled voters of the same political party.
The outgoing Nassau County Executive had appointed six ARC Commissioners. The counsel to the then-newly elected County Executive sent letters to each of the nine commissioners informing them that they were being removed from office pursuant to §203 of the Nassau County Charter. The letter stated that the commissioners had an opportunity to be heard, if they so desired.
The Court of Appeals noted that the Nassau County Charter vests the County Executive with authority to appoint members of county boards and commissions, subject to approval of the County Legislature, citing Nassau County Charter § 203 ). Concomitantly, said the court, "[t]he County Executive may at any time remove any person so appointed; provided that in the case of members of boards and commissions appointed for definite terms, no removal shall be made until the person to be removed has been serv[ed] with a notice of the reasons for such removal and given an opportunity to be heard, publicly if he or she desires, thereon by the County Executive. The decision of the County Executive shall be final."
Nassau County argued that, according to the plain language of the County Charter, the County Executive was within his authority to terminate Commissioners notwithstanding the absence of any wrongdoing on their part and regardless of the statutory term of office “in order to appoint individuals of his choosing.”
The Court of Appeals said that, in its view, the County’s argument “is inconsistent with the salutary purpose of the legislation at issue.” The court explained that “Although Real Property Tax Law §523-b does not set forth any procedure for the removal of commissioners, the statute demonstrates the legislative intent to protect the ARC from political influence. It is evident that the fixed, staggered terms of office along with the requirement that all of the commissioners must not be members of a single political party, are designed to promote stability of membership and political diversity. Notably, the five-year term of office exceeds the length of the County Executive's own. This design may frustrate the most recent expression of the electorate's mandate, but it is meant precisely to avoid a wholesale change of membership of the ARC upon the installation of each successive administration.”
As Nassau County’s Charter makes clear that when members of a commission appointed for a fixed term are removed, the "reasons for such removal" must be provided. "Reasons," in this context said the Court of Appeals, can reasonably be read as a synonym for "cause." Thus §203 permits removal of commissioners serving fixed terms for cause, but not otherwise. The court ruled that "the Real Property Tax Law §523-b and County Charter §203 are not incompatible, and read them together "to accomplish the clear legislative intent."
Although the Court of Appeals said that the commissioners, as County employees, are not protected by §36 of Public Officers Law,* it then noted that “it is instructive that a finding of some type of misconduct would be required to remove members of the similarly situated Board of Assessment Review (see 4 Ops Counsel SBEA No. 27 )”**.
The court then observed that “Removing the Commissioners without cause under County Charter §203 would frustrate the legislative intent by nullifying the requirements of the RPTL and rendering the staggered statutory terms of office in RPTL 523-b superfluous. \”
Thus, said the court, under the circumstances the commissioners are not essentially at-will employees, subject to termination for any reason whatsoever.
As to the several commissioners’ claim that that they were entitled to attorneys' fees they incurred in the course of this litigation, the Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that although the County is required to "provide for the defense" of an employee involved in a civil action arising out of an act or omission that occurred during the scope of his or her employment, in this instance the “employees commenced the action.” Accordingly, there is no obligation on the part of the County to pay for their "defense."
* §36 of the Public Officers Law provides for the removal of public officers "for any misconduct, maladministration, malfeasance or malversation in office."
The decision is posted on the Internet at:
Reprinted with permission New York Public Personnel Law
Mitchell H. Rubinstein