Term Limits Lawsuit Fails in Court; Goes to Appeal

Disclosure: A Director of The Yonkers Ledger is a petitioner on this complaint.

After over four months without a word, Westchester Supreme Court Judge Fufidio ruled that the recent extension of term limits does not violate ethics provisions in the City of Yonkers and is not subject to a voter referendum. However, a request to appeal this ruling has been filed by the 12 Yonkers voters who brought the complaint.

In late November, 2022, the Yonkers City Council voted to approve a local law amending the city charter to allow officers to run for a fourth consecutive 4-year term. These officers include the Mayor and council members. This move was seen by some as self-serving. Specifically, because current officers Mayor Mike Spano and Council member Mike Breen were serving their third and final term. In response, a diverse bi-partisan group of voters filed a lawsuit in Westchester Supreme Court to challenge the legality of that action. Noted civil rights attorney, Michael Sussman, is representing these voters.

The Complaint

The complaint argues that the council had violated certain ethics provisions within the Yonkers City Charter related to self-enrichment. Explicitly that voting to extend terms while still in office “may benefit” the office-holder financially in the form of salary and other perks of office. The complaint also cites the New York State Municipal Home Rule Law that requires a voter referendum when a local government wishes to change its structure–i.e. the number of terms an officer can serve.

The City of Yonkers responded with a motion to dismiss. The City posits that only the Yonkers Board of Ethics may rule on ethics violations. And even still, they assert that no violation was committed by the council or Mayor by changing this law in their favor. The City also disregards the application of the Home Rule Law in this instance. They argue that while changing the length of a current term would trigger a referendum, changing the amount of future terms does not.

The court did not agree with the City’s argument to dismiss the case. However, the court did call this a “pyrrhic victory” for the voters as he ultimately ruled against their complaint on the whole.

The Appeal

Michael Sussman and his clients are appealing this decision. In a filing on March 24th, Sussman summarizes three points to the Second Judicial Department.

  1. Whether Respondents’ unilateral determination to extend their own term limits, and without submitting the question to a mandatory referendum, violated the City of Yonkers Charter, applicable ethics laws and rules and/or The New York State Municipal Home Rule Law
  2. Whether Supreme Court erred in finding, as a matter of law, Respondents’ actions constitutional and not arbitrary or capricious to law.
  3. Whether Supreme Court erred in dismissing the complaint.

It is the position of Sussman that the underlying precedent used to deny the original complaint is weak. That the specifics of the complaint in Yonkers are unique and cannot be ruled on by referencing a case like Molinaro v Bloomberg. In that case, NYC abided by an ethics decision, a charter revision commission, and defined that the extension for Bloomberg was a “one shot” deal meant to maintain stability after a massive financial crisis. In Yonkers, no such devices were considered.

Sussman wishes an oral argument in this case. By delineating the differences described above, he believes the court will rule that the actions of the Council and Mayor in Yonkers were illegal. He is seeking an expedited hearing as the campaigns for the 2023 elections are now fully underway.

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