Dr. Robert Baskerville’s Open Letter To Lohud’s Ernie Garcia

Below is a letter I sent to Mr. Garcia correcting a major misstatement in Friday, July 8th’s article.

Good Evening Mr. Garcia,

I am writing to correct an important point of law which was misstated in yesterday’s article about the decision Acting Supreme Court Judge Neary rendered after the court was asked to resolve the ongoing dispute now raging between the Mayor and City Council over the question of where the city Commissioners must reside.

Confusion about what the City Charter requires when it comes to the residency requirements abounds among the residents of Mount Vernon. As is true with of so many of the legal controversies wracking our nation today, they often find it quite difficult to make a clear determination about what our laws require, for two basic reasons.

First, our laws tend to be written in complex legalese which ordinary lay people, with no training in law, often find difficult to readily understand.

Second, our is federalistic system of government, and most legal disputes, like the one the city is now wrestling with, actually involve a complex hierarchy of laws. In addition to local laws, there are state and federal laws with which the former must conform.

Anyone who hopes to understand the residency controversy must therefore read all of the pertinent local and state laws, in order to fully grasp the relation between them.

Though your article was well-intentioned—and does indeed correctly summarize the gist of Judge Neary’s ruling with respect to the residency issue—in the end, it has only added to this confusion about where Commissioners are legally required to live if they are to serve in city government.

Specifically, your articles asserts that the City Charter states that “no appointees can serve in City Hall unless they live in Westchester County between the southerly boundaries of the county and the northerly boundary lines of the Village of Tarrytown, Town of Greenburgh, City of White Plains and the Town of Harrison.” Technically, this statute is not a part of the City Charter; it part of the city’s ordinances. This may seem like a mere quibble, but it would akin to confusing federal statute with the U.S. Constitution.

To be more accurate, then, the residency requirements for appointive officers of the city are set forth in Article IV (Officers and Elections), § 15 (Qualifications) of the Charter: “Every person elected or appointed to office shall possess qualifications prescribed by § 3 of the Public Officers Law.”

Anyone wishing to know what our city’s residency laws require must therefore start by familiarizing themselves with this statute. This section of the Public Officers law is a sprawling statute, consisting of 92 separate paragraphs, spanning roughly 20 pages, where the residency requirements is stated in full.

Since few people are inclined to wade through the mind-numbing minutia of the statute, from start to finish, I’ll save readers the effort by boiling the requirements down to its most essential points.

First, as a general matter, under New York State Public Officers Law, anyone wishing to serve as an officer in municipal government must meet three basic requirements: 1) they must be at least 18 years; 2) a citizen of the United States as well as of the State of New York; and 3) a resident of the municipality where they serve.

After outlining these general requirements in the first paragraph, the statute then goes on to specify a number of officers and localities which have been granted exemptions from this general rule.

State-wide, there are only eight functionally defined groups of public officers—so far as I’ve been able to determine—who have been granted exemptions from the local residency requirement: 1) police officers; 2) sanitation workers; 3) parole officers and their fellow employees; 4) emergency special deputy sheriffs; 5) notary publics licensed to practice law in the state; 6) employees of paid fire departments; 7) probation officers; and 8) members of drug abuse prevention councils.

It is employees in these positions in Mount Vernon city government who are allowed to reside within the expanded boundaries cited in your article reviewing Judge Neary’s decision over the residency controversy.

With one or two rare exceptions, the NYS Public Officers Law does not give Commissioners or other such executive-level positions a state-wide exemption to the requirement that they live in the municipality where they serve. What’s more, when exemptions to residency law are granted, the statute specifies, by name, both the municipality and position for which the exemption is granted.

Officers of Westchester County, for example, are not required to reside within our borders; they can reside anyplace at all in the state of New York.

And of the 48 municipalities in Westchester, only a handful have been granted an exemption to the local residency requirement for particular groups of public officers. Named in alphabetical order, these municipalities are Bedford, Greenburgh, Lewisoboro, Mamaroneck, Mount Pleasant, New Castle, North Castle, Peekskill, Pound Ridge, Somers, and Yonkers.

While some Commissioner in our sister municipalities in Westchester have been granted exemptions to the residency laws, it is noteworthy that no officers serving the city of Mount Vernon are granted exemptions.

In closing, let me be unequivocally clear: both the Mayor and City Council of Mount Vernon are obligated to comply with the residency laws set forth in the NYS Public Officers Law. Granting ad hoc exemptions would be arrogation of the powers that can only be exercised by our state legislature. Any attempt to do so, without its expressed permission, would therefore make both branches of government party to an organized conspiracy to commit a political crime. Moreover, many residents in the city believe the backward state of affairs which now exist in our city is rooted in such illegal acts, which promotes corrupt horse trading and backroom dealing that hurts the interest of the general public.

To test this interpretation, the most active segment of the city’s residents are now readying themselves to take both the Mayor and the City Council to court for violating NYS law should they strike a deal that subverts the residency requirement.

If the members of the City Council are not faithful to these laws, they will join Mayor Thomas and become the next group of elected official to lose a legal battle in the ongoing residency controversy.