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Genesee County a step closer to filing suit against state for violating WROTB Home Rule

By Joanne Beck
Batavia Downs 2014
File photo by Howard Owens.

After a brief discussion with County Attorney James Wujcik Wednesday, county legislators were in favor of taking legal action against the state due to the governor’s recent budget amendment that removed control from founding Western Regional Off-Track Betting counties and gave it to Erie and Monroe counties and cities of Buffalo and Rochester through weighted voting for all of the WROTB members.

“It’s a total disregard to the Home Rule,” Wujcik said Wednesday during the Ways & Means meeting.

When County Legislative Chair Shelley Stein first learned of the move to dismantle the current 17-member board and revoke the one-person, one-vote arrangement that has been in effect for 50 years, she wasn’t happy to say the least.

“I was not of the understanding, quite frankly, that this was going to be part of the budget,” Stein said in May. “That to me was a shock and a surprise. It is surprising the policy is so wrapped up in a financial document.”

She had several thoughts about how and who it could affect, and couldn’t help but conclude that the bill reinforced a perception that “only New York City matters” to the big players in Albany.

On Wednesday, legislators on the committee weren’t just bothered by the amendment, but also by the way in which it happened.

“So we’ve got to stand up and say that the way they went about this is not the way the legislation called for,” Legislator Marianne Clattenburg said. “To change a whole new legislation, there’s a process to go through, and we’re alleging that this process was not done.”

The lawsuit — which will likely involve a consortium of plaintiffs according to Wujcik — will be filed against New York State, the governor, Assembly, Senate, and any other party deemed necessary to bring full relief to the residents of Genesee County.

The committee approved the resolution, which will then go onto the full Legislature for final approval. It states that:

WHEREAS, Chapter 346 of the Laws of 1973 enacted to create regional off-track betting corporations, the Genesee County Legislature passed legislation, authorizing Genesee County to participate in the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation (“WROTB”), and

WHEREAS, Resolution 172 of the Year 1973 states, “it is deemed advisable by the Genesee County Legislature that it is in the best interest of the people of Genesee County for our County to participate and become a member of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation,”

and WHEREAS, such 1973 legislation of the Genesee County Legislature specifically provided that it was subject to permissive referendum and shall become effective in accordance with Section 24 of the Municipal Home Rule Law of the State of New York, and

WHEREAS, on May 2, 2023 as a part of the New York State Budget, changes were effected through the 2023-2024 Budget process and amendments to N.Y. Racing Pari-Mutuel Wagering and Breeding Law 502, where control of WROTB was taken from the founding counties and given to Erie County, Monroe County, City of Buffalo and the City of Rochester through weighted voting by all of the WROTB members, and 

WHEREAS, Article IX, Section 2(b)(2) of the Constitution (the Home Rule Law) restricts the State legislature’s ability to act in relation to the property, affairs or government of any local government, the Municipal Home Rule Clause (NY Const, art IX, § 2 [b] [2]) allows the Genesee County Legislature to: 

Shall have the power to act in relation to the property, affairs or government of any local government only by general law, or by special law only (a) on request of two-thirds of the total membership of its legislative body or on request of its chief executive officer concurred in by a majority of such membership, or (b), except in the case of the city of New York, on certificate of necessity from the governor reciting facts which in the judgment of the governor constitute an emergency requiring enactment of such law and, in such latter case, with the concurrence of two-thirds of the members elected to each house of the legislature.

And, WHEREAS, it is unknown whether Governor’s message of necessity comported with the New York State Constitution, in particular, article III, § 14. That provision requires that bills be “printed and upon the desks of the members” of the Legislature at least three (3) calendar legislative days before final passage (N.Y. Const., art. III, § 14); although, this mandate may be circumvented if the Governor “certifie[s] ... the facts which in his or her opinion necessitate an immediate vote” on the bill (N.Y. Const., art. III, § 14).

It is unknown whether any facts are stated by the Governor in a certificate of necessity that form the basis in her opinion that necessitated an immediate vote, and, WHEREAS, the New York State Court of Appeals recognized in Matter of Moran v. La Guardia, 270 N.Y. 450, 452 that “To repeal or modify a statute requires a legislative act of equal dignity and import.” Nothing less than a Home Rule Message from a majority of the founding counties will suffice, i.e. “the doctrine of Legislative Equivalency.”

The doctrine of legislative equivalency has uniformly been applied with respect to the modification and or amendment of prior legislation, and, WHEREAS, none of the founding counties, especially Genesee County, the home County of WROTB, enacted Home Rule Messages requesting that N.Y. Racing Pari-Mutuel Wagering and Breeding Law § 502, be modified and/or amended, and never authorized a relinquishment of control of WROTB to Erie County, Monroe County, City of Buffalo, and City of Rochester, and

WHEREAS, Batavia Downs is located in the Town and City of Batavia in a residential area and this is an important quality of life issue for the host County of Genesee to not be negatively impacted by any change to the Board of Directors make up, and 

WHEREAS, the Ways & Means Committee has reviewed request and approves such recommendation.

In another revision, the state has tentatively moved to alter county elections so that positions would be up only on even-numbered years. That law would take effect on Jan 1, 2025, which leaves the question of when county elections would take place — prior to that or in 2026, County Manager Matt Landers said.

There would still have to be polling sites and workers, so there would be no cost savings, but the theory is that less elections would encourage more voters to come out, he said. Municipalities could realize a cost savings if all entities could participate instead of just the county, he said. It’s not a done deal just yet.

“The governor has to sign it,” Wujcik said.

After the meeting, the committee went into an executive session to discuss “proposed, pending, or current litigation.”

Landers did not respond to request for comments later on Wednesday.

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