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County rejects creating an integrity department

Jill Terreri
Staff writer

A proposal to create an independent office to investigate government operations in Monroe County was defeated Monday.

Saying the county's current procedures are insufficient, Democrats in the County Legislature asked their Republican colleagues to support a measure that would empower a director and a five-member volunteer board to respond to complaints and initiate reviews of records and procedures in county government, public authorities and local development corporations.

The measure failed along party lines in the legislature's Agenda/Charter Committee.

Republicans engaged in a relatively lengthy debate during the 90-minute meeting, but in voting against the proposal said an Office of Public Integrity would be another layer of government.

The county employs lawyers Donald Chesworth and Eugene Welch to investigate whistle-blower complaints received through a hotline. The lawyers report directly to County Executive Maggie Brooks, and none of their findings are made public, including the number of calls to the hotline or the number of cases the lawyers investigate.

In a letter forwarded to the resolution's sponsor, Legislator Carrie Andrews, D-Rochester, County Attorney William Taylor said information regarding activities of the Independent Accountability Counsel is "kept confidential pursuant to applicable law."

"As co-partners here in this government, it doesn't seem like information that should be confidential," Andrews said Monday. "Have we had five calls to the hotline or 500?"

The proposed office, which would have opened in January 2012 and been paid for with funds from the now-vacant budget director position, received mixed reviews from four residents who spoke before the vote.

Democrats also tried to tackle an issue that comes up every year at budget time, but were again defeated along party lines.

They proposed creating a work group with two legislators from each major party to examine exactly how many mandates the county has to deal with.

Mandates are those services that the county must provide according to state or federal law, and account for 82 percent of the county budget, according to Brooks.

Democrats have disputed her figures, saying that she considers fully grant-funded items to be "mandated" because the grants come with rules on how the money should be spent.

Mandates that the county must at least partially pay for include Medicaid, employee pensions, indigent defense and welfare.

The Brooks administration has refused to provide a list to legislators or the public of which items in the budget are mandated and which are not.

The proposed work group would consist solely of legislators and would not be able to pass legislation on its own. However, in voting against the proposal, Legislator Mike Barker, R-Fairport, said he didn't want to give up his authority as a legislator to a new committee, and that he preferred to keep legislature action to committees that have already been established.

"The give and take that's in these committees is what we're elected to do," he said.