Disputing a pronoun in The City of Dunkirk, NY

By: Richard Morrisroe

During a December council meeting, I received a text from my wife telling me my 80-year-old father was being taken to the hospital with chest pains. Seconds later, Councilman Shaun Heenan asked about the council term change referendum.

Distracted and worried about my father, I used the word “we” in my response when I expressed the referendum sponsors’ desire to increase voter participation by moving it to 2019, when all Dunkirk’s elected officials except the city judge are on the ballot. I was caught off-guard.

That “we” triggered quite the response. Councilman Heenan picked up on the “we” immediately. A letter to the OBSERVER expressed confusion and alleged lack of city accountability. OBSERVER Publisher John D’Agostino wrote several pieces decrying “dark decisions” and “illegal acts” by councilmembers and city leaders. He accused the leadership of voter suppression. Another recent commentary called for an investigation into the City’s alleged wrongdoings, and my alleged illegal acts.

One misplaced pronoun created a perception of wrongdoing. But that’s just it. It is a perception. It is wrong. Here is the reality.

All that I said at the council meeting is the truth, albeit with a bit of agitation due to concern over my father’s health, not Heenan’s question. Council did debate whether to put the referendum on the 2018 or 2019 ballot. I did not. My role as city attorney is to provide legal advice, do the legal research and draft the resolutions requested by council. That is what I did.

Councilmembers Martin Bamonto and Don Williams sponsored the resolution introducing the referendum on changing council terms. A public hearing occurred at the next council meeting, where three citizens stated that the terms should remain two-year terms. More council debate followed, then they voted. A 3-2 majority passed the resolution. Even one of the referendum resolution’s sponsors, Bamonto, voted against it, after seeing how unpopular the term change was with citizens.

Next, as Norm Green wrote in his Jan. 8 letter to the OBSERVER, lack of communication between the Board of Elections staff and the city clerk led to a missed deadline to put the referendum on the 2018 ballot. I did not catch the mistake on time. The resolution’s council sponsors did not catch it either. The Board of Elections did not catch it until it was too late, as Green admitted. Conspiracy? Far from. It was an honest mistake.

As I stated at that December council meeting, resolutions can be amended, changed, rescinded or modified at any time, by council vote, not by my hand or that of the mayor. Nor can they be amended by “secret, closed-door meetings.” We do not have such power. I never meant to give that impression. The city charter is clear on this. We didn’t change the date. Miscommunication lead to a missed deadline. So, when the deadline was missed, this January’s resolution changing the referendum date to the 2019 general election was not illegal. It was simply late, but ultimately necessary to fix the error.

The Feb. 16 letter notes that the mayor, Commissioner Green, the referendum sponsors and I all conspired via a phone call to make “an illegal change.” He is simply wrong. I was never a part of any phone call or closed-door meeting. The mayor had nothing to do with either the error or the referendum. After the deadline was missed, the councilmen did meet with the commissioner and the mayor to discuss options, as Green relates in his letter. After weighing the options, the council members thought it best to change the date to 2019.

My “we” should have been “the council resolution sponsors,” or “they.” Thus stated, they did nothing illegal or wrong. Nor did I. My involvement ended at drafting the resolution. I was told of the meeting after the fact.

Ask the writer to cite any statutes that were broken. He cannot. There is a reason the district attorney has not investigated this issue. No laws were broken. It was a procedural error, nothing more. As Commissioner Green wrote in his commentary, a lack of communication led to the error. That is the truth. It is also true that the resolution sponsors preferred the referendum be on the 2019 ballot to increase voter turnout, not to suppress it.

Let’s now talk about political realities. No one in April and May of 2018 knew the blue wave response to Trump’s policies would drive up the 2018 midterm election vote as it did, as did the Trump supporters’ strong turnout in support of said policies. And D’Agostino’s accusation that this was an intentional move because of the county’s strong Republican slate is baseless. The county voted heavily Republican. The city, as usual, voted heavily Democrat. Cuomo and down ballot Democrats lost in much of rural Chautauqua County. But they won in Dunkirk.

Note the irony of accusing modern Democrats with strong ties to labor (which preaches voter turnout) like Williams and Bamonto of voter suppression, when it is the modern Republicans and the Dixiecrat Democrats of the past century that have suppressed the vote for decades. My father nearly lost his life in Alabama in 1965 fighting for African-Americans’ right to vote. Google Richard F. Morrisroe for more information. What you find will make it plainly obvious I am not a proponent of voter suppression either. Thus, D’Agostino’s accusations of voter suppression and conspiracy theories ring hollow.

With all the fuss, I ask this: did this procedural error harm the citizens of Dunkirk? No. Were they deprived of their right to vote on the issue? No. If a citizen sought a lawyer to sue the city because of the error, the lawyer’s first question on any civil lawsuit would be, “What are the damages?” Here, there are no damages, as much as others would like you to believe. No one was harmed. Citizens will still have their vote on the referendum this November.

Motives matter. Why would Heenan, who voted against the referendum being placed on the ballot, raise the issue in December, a month after the election? Rumors abound about a possible run for mayor. True or not, the political season has started in Dunkirk, and a smear campaign is underway against the city administration. This wasn’t about illegal council action, or the referendum. It was about scoring political points to create a case against the mayor and the council Democrats. Heenan is quoted as stating, “What happened was they dropped the ball and didn’t get it filed. I would have been satisfied with that answer.” See “Heenan grills attorney on change in vote” (Dec. 8). That is the political reality.

Thankfully, my father just pulled a chest muscle. It was not a heart attack, as I feared when I received that text message. Thankfully, the fuss over the council term referendum is unfounded. Thankfully, I believe Dunkirk’s citizens can see through the attempted smear. Miscommunication led to procedural error, but laws were not broken. Citizens will still have their say this November on the council term issue.

Attempted political smears and criticism aside, Dunkirk is improving, as Mayor Wilfred Rosas and his administration are working hard to continue its resurgence. The administration is not perfect, nor am I. But we do our best, and we achieve results. Don’t let this unnecessary, politically motivated drama obscure that reality. As I said to Heenan at that council meeting, time to move on.

Richard J. Morrisroe, Esq., is Dunkirk city attorney.

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