July 09, 2001
Sheriff has become big election issue
ORANGE COUNTY: The biggest question facing county government since its charter was approved may be skewed by political ambitions.
By John-Henry Doucette
The Times Herald-Record
Two weeks ago, Edward Diana said he would lead a change to Orange County's charter.
Newburgh Democrat Anthony Marino doesn't think things can happen as fast as his good friend across the aisle implied.
Marino is the Legislature's minority leader, and Diana leads the majority. Diana is also running for county executive. The election is this November.
That upcoming race may have fanned the fire in Diana's rhetoric.
Diana says he would move control of the jail from the sheriff's office to the county executive. Since then, none of the other 20 legislators have publicly seemed so moved, in part because Sheriff Frank Bigger is a Republican and the party runs the Legislature.
This leads Marino to conclude (and Republicans to quietly confide) that Diana wrote a politically advantageous check that as one of 21 lawmakers he may have trouble cashing.
The 91-page Holland & Knight report, that issued a scathing evaluation of the sheriff's office, came out in June, and legislators are stepping back.
This is their question:
If the problem is a man, why destroy his office?
Here is what legislators have discussed regarding Bigger, if only in interviews:
- Many say they are reconsidering how likely it is that they will suggest the people of Orange County should vote away an elected office.
"I think it's throwing the baby out with the bath water," said Legislator Spencer McLaughlin, R-Monroe. "I really don't see any concrete evidence in the report that says we should eliminate the office itself."
Legislative Chairman Richard Hansen, R-Unionville, said it may be rash to ask Bigger to resign, with the move to the county's new, $90 million jail coming up. Hansen explained: "If something happens now and he's out, who do we have to help us move into this (jail)?"
- Diana's suggestion echoes earlier calls by his two Democratic rivals for county executive. It is more likely than dismantling the entire office, but it won't happen immediately. It's uncertain if anyone will back a move without careful study.
"He's speaking like the other two," Hansen said yesterday of Diana's Democratic rivals Richard Randazzo and Michael Sussman.
"We should take our time, move cautiously," Marino said. "I'm not prepared to, for political convenience, throw... out the whole system."
- Look for key Republicans to speed or slow debate. These include Hansen, Diana and Montgomery's L. Stephen Brescia, who chairs the legislative committee that oversees the Sheriff's Office. Brescia's leadership has been questioned by Democrats, who say he is too close to the sheriff. Brescia has been more vocal lately about problems in the Sheriff's Office.
- All eight Democrats will speak strongly, but look for Goshen's Michael W. Farrell Sr., a frequent critic of the sheriff, to lead. Among others, Newburgh's Harvey Burger, Wallkill's Michael Paduch and Middletown's Jeffrey Berkman, have spoken strongly about the conclusions in the Holland and Knight report.
- Then there's Marino, well-regarded by his colleagues, personally affable and the leader of a minority in a surprisingly strong position this year.
Elections for nearly every county office, including all 21 legislative seats, are set for November. (Ironically, the sheriff isn't up, in a year in which the office has become an election issue.) The Democratic minority can do what party chairman Jonathan Jacobson says a minority does best:
Marino said that with political pressure on Republicans, he may get a response to a letter he sent Bigger last year:
"The Legislature wants to assure County residents that expenditures and operations of Orange County's facilities are wise and efficient," Marino wrote the sheriff. "Together, we can do that."
That was on June 22, 2000.
As goes what is becoming a chorus in a frustrated Legislature, Marino never heard back.
content © 2000-2002 Jeffrey Berkman
(except where indicated)
Orange County Legislature
PO Box 787
Middletown, New York 10940
fax: (845) 343-9158
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