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Six rural counties join litigation aimed at overturning changes to WROTB governance

By Mike Pettinella

Lawmakers in six of the 15 counties that benefit from revenues generated by Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. have passed resolutions to participate in a pending lawsuit to overturn changes to the structure and voting format of the public benefit company’s board of directors.

Legislative bodies in Niagara, Orleans, Wyoming, Livingston and Seneca counties have joined Genesee County in an effort to nullify bills passed by New York State -- during budget negotiations in May – that eliminated the board at that time and shifted voting to a weighted system.

Albany’s action transferred the voting power from the rural (predominately Republican counties to the urban (predominately Democratic municipalities of Erie and Monroe counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.

Genesee County Attorney James Wujcik today said that he has been talking to lawyers representing the rural counties, confirming that six have signed on thus far. Others rural counties that may opt in are Cattaraugus, Cayuga, Chautauqua, Oswego, Wayne and Steuben. The status of Schuyler County is unknown at this point.

“So far, six counties have passed resolutions authorizing their county attorneys to enjoin litigation,” said Wujcik, who added that a draft of the lawsuit is forthcoming.

He also confirmed a report in the Niagara Gazette that Genesee, Niagara and Orleans counties have committed $5,000 each to retain the Lippes Mathias law firm of Buffalo. According to a story on Aug. 1, the newspaper reported that the firm’s lead attorney, Dennis Vacco, will be paid $400 per hour as the “coordinating attorney of all activities” while three others will be paid $375, $350 and $280 per hour.

Should 12 counties sign on to the lawsuit, each would be expected to pay the same amount in attorneys’ and related fees.

Genesee County Legislature Chair Rochelle Stein said that premise of the litigation is “to protect the counties’ Home Rule rights” – the one-county, one-vote format -- that have been in place since WROTB’s creation 50 years ago.

“Genesee County’s position is that we must protect our citizens who, by a referendum, voted to join Western Regional,” Stein said. “People trying to change the result of an election is an overreach, and we can’t let that occur in New York State.”

A portion of the resolution passed by the Genesee County Legislature in June refers to the Home Rule provision, noting that:

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. Rac. Pari-Mut. Wag. & 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.

Democratic State Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo initiated action to dismantle the WROTB board and change the voting structure in light of a state Comptroller’s audit that found fault with the corporation’s use of tickets to sporting events (notably, Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres) and concerts; “gold-plated” health insurance for directors, and for President/CEO Henry Wojtaszek’s use of a company vehicle.

Wojtaszek has said that the corporation has taken corrective measures since then, recently stating that management is working on new health insurance options for employees, but not board members.

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