Jul 30, 2014

Court Shoots Down PC Voting Rights Appeal

Port Chester can't fight the consent decree that brought cumulative voting to the village, according to the U.S. Appeals Court.

Court Shoots Down PC Voting Rights Appeal

Cumulative voting is here to stay, and Port Chester taxpayers are on the hook for thousands of dollars in attorney fees from the ill-fated effort to reverse the voting rights case.

The decision marks the end of a divisive saga that included political battles, philosophical differences and lots of emotional feedback from people who live in the village.

In February, Port Chester's Republican trustees voted to fight the legally well-armed Department of Justice and appeal the voting rights case. In addition to hiring two local attorneys, trustees hired high-powered lawyer Michael Carvin at a cost of $225,000. Carvin is the brother of Joseph Carvin, Rye Town's Republican supervisor.

In April, a federal judge threw a bucket of cold water on the appeal effort with a written decision that the village "may not appeal a consent decree."

Still, Republican trustees and their lawyers pressed on, saying they had faith in Carvin and other attorneys, who said Port Chester had favorable odds in the case.

That optimism has been dashed with a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals, which dismissed Port Chester's appeal this week.

A message has been left with Anthony Piscionere, a local attorney who represented Port Chester in the appeal. Messages were also left with Carvin. Carvin has not responded to more than a half-dozen inquiries from Port Chester Patch since the village board's Republican majority voted to appeal in February.

Carvin's contract alone amounts to a one percent tax increase for Port Chester taxpayers if the attorney bills the village for the entire amount. Attorneys have billed the village for $35,000 and the village attorney's office is awaiting more legal bills related to the case.

The decision was not unexpected in some circles. Mayor Dennis Pilla, who opposed the appeal, said in February that the advice given by Port Chester's contracted lawyers didn't match up with the opinions of other attorneys and legal experts.

"I think they've been given bad advice all along. I think the advice has been skewed to the right, and if you look at the political affiliations of the lawyers...I think that has something to do with the bad advice we've given," Pilla said.

It's not clear what the final tab will be, but some leaders are bracing for a hefty bill, while others are calling for the attorneys to waive their fees as a gesture of good will toward the village.

Trustee Sam Terenzi said he expects the village will pay at least six figures in fees.

"Am I happy about the fact that we spent more than $100,000 and got nowhere? No," he said. "But we made the decision. Now we know where we stand and we're going to go forward."

One of the central arguments in favor of an appeal was to preserve "continuity" in government. Because elections were suspended before cumulative voting was imposed on the village, all six current trustees were elected at the same time, in June of last year.

That means all six incumbents could be potentially voted out at once, producing an entirely new board. Trustee John Branca was among those who said the possibility of a "rookie board" was a motivating factor in voting for an appeal.

Now that legal action is off the table, political leaders in Port Chester say they'll turn their efforts toward creating staggered trustee elections, so all six seats aren't up at once.

Terenzi said it's important to own the decision to appeal, and said he believes residents voted for him because that was part of his platform in 2010. But with this week's decision, Terenzi said it's time to move on.

"My goal is to try to move the village forward," he said. "If anyone wants to take political pleasure out of the fact that we made a bad decision, so be it."

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