Disclosure: A Director of The Yonkers Ledger is a petitioner on this complaint.
The City of Yonkers (CoY) has responded to a lawsuit brought against it over the recent extension of officers’ term limits. A motion to dismiss was filed by the CoY in Westchester Supreme court on January 10th.
On Dec 22, 2022, Mayor Mike Spano and the entirety of the seven-member City Council were served with the lawsuit brought by Michael Sussman. Sussman is representing 12 Yonkers voters who contest the legality of the council’s charter amendment that extends how many terms the mayor and council members may serve. The lawsuit argues that the council’s action violated the city’s own ethics provision on adopting legislation to self-benefit. It also argues that under New York state law, a referendum must be held if a government wishes to change its structure. In this case, by changing the number of terms an officer can serve.
The law firm of Harris Beach is representing the City in their first court filing. In the 27 page document, each point of the original complaint is addressed. In summary, the City argues that the plaintiffs do not have the right to contest a law passed by the city council. As support, it cites the similar Molinari v Bloomberg case which also contested New York City’s extension of term limits in 2009. The City of Yonkers argues that these 12 voters had the opportunity during the 10 days between the law’s proposal to passage, to sway their elected officials. Furthermore, they may simply not vote for any candidate that supported the extension of term limits – the mayor included.
The filing also dismisses the standing of the plaintiffs in regards to violations of the City Charter’s ethics provisions. If Yonkers residents wish to file an ethics complaint, then the City asserts they may do so to the city’s own ethics board. A board which is appointed by the Mayor without the consent of the City Council.
The City also dismisses the importance of the prior referendums on term limits. Again referencing Molinari v. Bloomberg, the City’s position is that the will of the voters in 1994 and 2001 is “irrelevant.” Citing further case law, the age of the referendum is used as justification for its disregard.
Beyond these refutations, the City also posits that the City Council itself does not have the authority to call for referendum at all. During the council meeting on Nov 22, 2022 – which saw not only the passage of the term limits extension but also another shameful circus act in Yonkers history – both Council Member Merante and Council President Collins-Bellamy promised to put a referendum on the general election ballot. This referendum would presumably allow voters to roll back to the previous three-term limit (not the original two-term limit that was enacted in 1994 and upheld in 2001). But, if the court sides with City, then no council-sponsored referendum will reach the hands of voters in November.
Michael Sussman is likely to file a response to this motion imminently. There are ultimately a multitude of potential outcomes from this litigation. While the mayor may face an injunction barring him from seeking a fourth term, this initial response from the City wishes to brush this entire situation under the rug. In doing so, the state will affirm that there are no legal guardrails in regards to regulating term limits. That the only thing that matters, hence the only remedy, is turnout in an election.
You may read the complete filing below.