With Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz pointing out that tough fiscal times are ahead, the need for an independent Citizens Budget Review Commission in County government is now  important than ever. Six years ago the Erie County Legislature adopted legislation which required the formation of an 11 member Citizens Budget Review Commission. While the County Charter requires the Citizens Budget Commission to review county finances through monthly meetings and to file reports, it simply has not happened.

Elected officials talk a good game about encouraging citizen participation in government but not one of them including County Comptroller Poloncarz ever made an issue about the County Charter not being followed. No one demanded that the Citizen Budget Commission be formed, no one filed a resolution asking where the Citizen Budget Commission reports were.

Yet meeting after meeting legislators took the time to draft and file resolutions honoring various individuals and organizations in an effort to troll for votes. While not a single legislator or the Comptroller took it upon themselves to champion the operation of the Citizens Budget Commission, Daniel Warren as a concerned citizen filed a lawsuit acting as his own attorney to point out that the County Charter requires the formation of a Citizens Budget Commission. Mr. Warren’s case is still pending before Supreme Court Judge Donna Siwek, who I understand has directed the County to form the Commission or remove it from the County Charter.

Partly in response to Mr. Warren’s lawsuit the Erie County Legislature recently passed 11-0 the Budget Modernization Act of 2012. The Budget Modernization Act of 2012 guts the independence of the Citizens Budget Review Commission, by changing how citizens are selected for the Commission. Currently the County Charter requires  five  professional organizations to each recommend three names to the legislature and the legislature will pick one name for the five spots. The five organizations listed in the Charter are: The Erie County Bar Association, The WNY Chapter of the New York State Association of Accountants, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a banking institution, and a labor representative. While not a perfect process at least some outside professional organizations had independent input in recommending names.

A better approach in my opinion is for the five professional organizations to each forward one name to serve on the Citizens Budget Commission. A Commission consisting of five independently selected citizens, five citizens appointed by the Legislature and one appointed by the Erie County Executive, could be a unique and dynamic group. We need independent citizens to review the County budget process and not the usual suspects associated with partisan politics.

Through the recently passed Budget Modernization Act of 2012, the process of professional organizations recommending names will be deleted. The Erie County Legislature will pick ten individuals to serve and the Erie County Executive will pick one individual. The last thing we need in a fiscal crisis is a Budget Commission consisting of individuals hand picked by legislators.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz after holding a public hearing has the opportunity to sign the Budget Modernization Act of 2012 or he can veto it. Poloncarz can take a stand for the importance of having at least five members of the Citizens Budget Review Commission being independently selected instead of being hand picked by legislators.

It will be interesting to see whether Poloncarz will support creating an independent Citizen Budget Review Commission by vetoing the Budget Modernization Act of 2012.