Disclosure: A Director of The Yonkers Ledger is a petitioner on this complaint.
On December 12th, notable civil rights attorney, Michael Sussman, filed a lawsuit in the Westchester County Supreme Court against the City of Yonkers. The suit contests their amendment of the City Charter to extend term limits without a voter referendum. Signed on as plaintiffs are 12 Yonkers residents representing a range of geographic, social, political, and economic diversity in a move to symbolize a trial court’s “jury of one’s peers.”
This move comes only 10 days after Mayor Mike Spano signed the new law amending the Yonkers’ Charter to allow officers to serve four terms of four years instead of three terms. On the seven seat council, there was both bi-partisan support, and bi-partisan opposition to this change that ultimately resulted in a 4 to 3 vote to adopt the extension. Those in support, like the author of the legislation, Lakisha Collins-Bellamy, owe a great deal of their political success to the mayor and his family. While others, like Republican Council Member of the sixth district Anthony Merante, may soon announce his own bid for mayor next year.
While this is the second time in a row that the city council has amended the charter to allow for an extension of term limits, this recent process was faced with increased scrutiny and near derision by many in the public.
How Term Limits Were Changed
The proposed amendment itself was presented to the council only days after the 2022 general election. During the rules committee meeting on Tuesday Nov. 15, there was already a spectacle in the works. Present in the historic Yonkers City Hall chambers were activist groups like the NAACP, Community Voices Heard, and NYCD16 Indivisible who opposed the extension, as well as a collection of Spano supporters who appeared to be mostly labor-backed city workers. During discussion, Anthony Merante proposed bi-partisan legislation, co-authored with Shanae Williams of the first district, to place the term limits extension on a public referendum on the next general election’s ballot in 2023. Both this, and Mr. Merante’s suggestion to move the term limits extension into the committee on legislation for further discussion were not adopted in an evenly split, 3:3 vote as Mike Breen was absent. The official term limits extension vote was then scheduled on the agenda for the next council meeting, but not before the council conceded to holding one public hearing on the matter.
The public hearing was held on Monday Nov. 21st at the Riverfront Library in downtown Yonkers. All members of the council were in attendance to hear roughly 150 registered speakers. Over the four hour long session, two persistent themes emerged. One in support of extensions based solely on the approval of the current mayor’s tenure and wishing for that to extend indefinitely. And one opposed that pleaded for the term limits change to be put to a referendum as it had been in 1994 and 2001.
The city council meeting on the vote was held the next evening. As was the scene in the rules meeting and the public hearing, the room was packed and the crowd was restless. After some comments from the public, the council members themselves made their remarks. Most notable where from the City Council President, Lakisha Collins-Bellamy, and the Majority Leader, Tasha Diaz. Collins-Bellamy, noting a recent death in the family, went from visibly upset to outright irate at those in the public who questioned her ambition and motives for proposing this unsolicited change. Diaz also took a combative approach and went so far as to admonish individual constituents in the crowd. The room became so heated that one community advocate was even arrested. Despite this pandemonium, the vote was taken and the term limits extension was passed by a one vote margin. With the council vote secured, Mayor Mike Spano signed the legislation on Friday Dec. 2.
The Legal Challenge
The fundamental question asked by those in opposition to this term limits change was, does the city council and the mayor have the power to make this change? Those in support cite the council’s inherit ability to change local laws within the charter. But, those in opposition posit that the term limits section of the charter rises above that power. Leaving aside a referendum, the lightning-fast process the city council engaged in also omitted legislative committee hearings and the engagement of the independent charter commission whose sole purpose is to advise on these matters. So, it is from this position where Michael Sussman is now arguing to the state Supreme Court that the city’s action is in violation of its own Ethics provision as well as New York State law.
The Yonkers Charter asserts in Section C1A-6 that no officer shall engage in an action that may result in their direct financial benefit. By the sitting council members and the mayor changing the charter in a way that may directly benefit themselves, by allowing them to reap the perks of additional terms, they, Sussman argues, are in violation of this ethics provision. If the change to the charter had been applied only after all sitting officers had exercised their three terms, then there would have been no violation.
Beyond the city’s own ethics statutes, Sussman also cites Section II of the New York State Municipal Home Rule law which prohibits local governments from changing the structure of their own government without a public referendum. Term limits, the suit argues, is a qualification of a candidate and cannot be altered by the candidates’ themselves. This state provision therefore requires a public referendum on a change of this type.
If the court agrees on either point, the recent charter amendment may become void and a mandatory referendum could be placed on the 2023 general election ballot.
Depending on the language of this referendum, and the confidence of the Spano campaign, both the primary and general elections in 2023 could result in turmoil. No legitimate candidates have stated their intention to challenge Spano in the primary. And even a Merante-led GOP ticket in the general will be met with historical difficulty in unseating the popular incumbent. But, Yonkers may face a legal quagmire if Spano is re-elected but is then blocked from assuming the office for a fourth term if the potential term limits referendum fails. At this moment, there are numerous possible outcomes and nothing should be taken for granted in the 2023 race for the Mayor of Yonkers.