Judge upholds ballot wording
2 legislators challenged language of proposition on court relocation
A judge has rejected an effort by two Ulster County legislators to change the language of a ballot proposition seeking voter approval to move the Ulster County Family Court out of the city of Kingston.
The judge, though, said the language that will go before the voters on Nov. 8 does seem to have the county’s “proverbial thumb on the scale.”
In her ruling Friday, acting state Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman found that while
the ballot language at issue “is leading,” she said there was no evidence presented to prove that it was “misleading.”
“(W)hile there is a plethora of authority that the text of a proposition cannot be misleading, no authority has been provided that the text of the proposition cannot be leading,” she wrote in an 11-page decision.
Absent such proof, Hartman wrote, noting the county Legislature defeated a resolution that would have changed the ballot language, the court is in “no position to resolve legislative disagreements.”
I’m thrilled and relieved that the court ruled this way,” said Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk. “I’m thrilled that the Legislature and the courts both believe this was the right ballot proposition for the people of Ulster County.
The Nov. 8 ballot proposition upheld by Hartman reads: “In order to improve services to the children and families of Ulster County, reduce the need to raise property taxes and satisfy state mandates, the County
of Ulster proposes to relocate the current leased site of the Ulster County Family Court, located at 16 Lucas Avenue in the City of Kingston, County of Ulster, State of New York, to a more suitable county-owned property situated less than 800 feet from the City of Kingston line, located at 1 Development Court, Ulster Avenue in the Town of Ulster, County of Ulster, State of New York. Shall this proposition be approved?”
Legislators David Donaldson, D-Kingston, and John Parete, D-Boiceville, filed a lawsuit against County Executive Michael Hein, Ronk, R-Wallkill, Legislature Clerk Victoria Fabella and the county’s elections commissioners, seeking to change that language to something they said was “more neutral.” They said the language was misleading, ambiguous, illegal and not a clear and coherent representation of what the voters should consider.
Donaldson and Parete wanted the ballot to read: “Shall the county of Ulster be permitted to relocate the current leased site of the Ulster County Family Court, located at 16 Lucas Avenue in the City of Kingston, County of Ulster to an existing county-owned property,
approved by the New York State Office of Court Administration, located at 1 Development Court, Ulster Aveune in the Town of Ulster, County of Ulster, State of New York?”
In her decision, Hartman acknowledged the text proposed by Donaldson and Parete “is more neutral” and said she was “particularly concerned about the use of the phrase ‘more suitable’ ... whereby the Ulster County Legislature put its proverbial thumb on the scale.”
But, she said, there was no evidence presented during a hearing held Wednesday to suggest a proposition couldn’t be framed that way.
Donaldson and Parete said they were disappointed by the court ruling.
“I think common sense didn’t prevail,” said Parerte, a former Democratic elections commissioner and former Legislature chairman.
“I’m disappointed by not surprised,” said Donaldson, also a former Legislature chairman.
Hein late Friday called the lawsuit a “colossal waste of taxpayer money by Legislators Donaldson and Parete” and “disrespectful of the legislative process.”
Donaldson said the pair wouldn’t appeal the court’s ruling, but said he may call for a legislative investigation into why lawmakers weren’t given a copy of a 2014 estimate by an architect hired by GD Realty, the owner of the current Family Court building, that pegged the cost of renovations of that building at about $3 million.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Deputy County Executive Robert Sudlow said the cost to renovate and purchase the Lucas Avenue building would be about $8 million, in addition to the cost of relocating the court while renovations were underway.
The county has come under intense pressure by the New York Office of Court Administration to upgrade its Family Court facilities, which the state has called “wholly inadequate.”
County leaders have said it would be more cost-effective to move the court operations to the county-owned Business Resource Center in the town of Ulster than to buy and renovate the Lucas Avenue building.
Moving the court out of the city of Kingston, which is the county seat, can only be done with voter approval.