County Legislature gives blessing to housing initiative

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Resolution amended to remove contentious language, passes on second go


NEW CITY – Following two spirited debates and scathing criticism from firefighters, the Rockland County Legislature agreed to pass a memorializing resolution expressing support for an initiative which aims to crack down on illegal housing.

A new version of the law was presented to the Legislature this week by Legislator Richard Diaz after a similar resolution was blocked from a vote in the body’s Multi-Services Committee last week. After strong words of support from representatives of Rockland’s first responder community and lengthy debate on the content of the law, it was approved in a unanimous vote.

The laws offer official legislative support for the Rockland Codes Initiative, which expands enforcement powers for county housing inspectors, establishes an online reporting process for housing code violations and creates a database of the worst repeat offenders.

Though the protective purpose of the law was not contested, the language of the law proved controversial. Two clauses nestled in the text of the law suggesting that County Executive Ed Day failed to provide legal information to the body provoked ire from some legislators. One clause went as far as characterizing the absence of feedback as a “refusal to work cooperatively with the legislative branch.”

According to Legislator Christopher Carey, who sponsored the initial resolution, the inclusion of the language was an attempt to document a conflict in a law which should have been non-partisan, a maneuver he had never seen before in County government.

“I see that as combative, petty, and low,” Carey said. “The resolution that was presented in committee last week did not have any stabs at this body.”

Legislator Lon Hofstein added that he took strong exception to the summary dismissal of the initial resolution and statements by Multi-Services Chairman Phillip Soskin that Hofstein’s motions were not recognized. Questioning the sincerity of the language, Hofstein went on to argue the Legislature was obligated to work past rather than codify disagreements.

“Let’s put up or shut up,” Hofstein said. “Let’s be adults. Let’s find a way to cross party lines and work together.”

Support for the resolution was unanimous, but many legislators still defended the inclusion of at least the first clause, which they argued was a factual statement which did not warrant removal. Schoenberger, who voted against the resolution in Multi-Services, argued his initial wariness toward the law was not because he opposed the initiative but because he never received an opinion on its legality from the County Attorney’s Office.

Schoenberger added he could not find the opinion on the county’s website when he was directed there. Though he stated he was open to a language change if it helped advance the law’s passage, Legislator Ilan Schoenberger nonetheless defended the statements as accurate in light of his own frustrations.

“I looked for it high and low and it just isn’t there,” Schoenberger said.

Schoenberger added that he resented accusations of political motives for his refusal to vote for the law in committee and offered his support for the resolution in spite of his concerns about legal repercussions against fire inspectors and other county employees.

“I’m looking to build a consensus among all of us to pass this resolution,” Schoenberger continued.

In a similar move, Legislator Soskin opted to support the resolution based upon his own fact-finding efforts after the Committee. Much like Schoenberger, Soskin expressed concern about an over-broad impact on law-abiding property-owners.

“Based upon my talking to Mr. [Gordon] Wren and some other people, I am willing to go along with this resolution because it answers my question,” Soskin said.

Soskin also defended his decision not to call a vote in Multi-Services, reiterating his position that the first resolution was more than a memorializing resolution because it could produce liability and other unintended consequences.

Though most legislators voted for the removal of the language, many still took the opportunity to defend it as the product of continued tension between the Legislative and Executive branches. In his criticism, Legislator Toney Earl cited the 2015-2016 draft budget-which defunded nonprofits even after promises that they would remain intact-as one of many misrepresentations Day has made since his election.

Legislator Jay Hood agreed and argued a recent criticism of the county’s plan for Hi-Tor Animal Shelter showed a pattern of political obstruction which has slowed government on even the most non-controversial issues.

“Everything is a fight,” Hood said. “Everything is a problem.”

Ultimately, both clauses were shot down. The first clause was rejected by all legislators except Soskin, Schoenberger, Aron Wieder and Alden Wolfe while the second was rejected by all but Earl and Michael Grant.

Political frustrations also extended to first-responders who appeared before the body again to argue for the resolution. However, their frustrations were directed more toward a legislature they perceived to be ineffective, perceptions that prompted them to walk out of Multi-Services in protest.

Fire and Emergency Director Gordon Wren stated that while the decision to walk out was not characteristic of his style of public engagement, he did acknowledge it was the product of years of frustration with governmental inaction which force firefighters to act as advocates for their own safety.

“Why should the volunteers who do this for free…why should they have to come to this meeting?” Wren asked.

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