Op-Ed written by John Nonna for The Journal News

9/26/2009 10:06:36 AM

Much has been written and said over the last month about the settlement of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York’s federal False Claims Act lawsuit against Westchester County. On Tuesday night, after nearly five hours of debate and discussion, the Board of Legislators approved the settlement and the bond act by a 12-5 vote. The board also passed legislation mandating its direct participation in the development of implementation plan and settlement. Here is the view of one legislator who made the difficult decision to vote for the settlement.


Westchester County has not been found guilty of segregation. Westchester County has supported the construction of affordable housing for many years under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Many of us believe that the lack of diversity in many communities is not because of racial discrimination but economic discrimination - many people, including people of color, cannot afford to move to affluent communities. Many of us also believe that diversity and inclusion are important and will make our society a better one.

The federal court, however, found that the county failed to fulfill its promise in certifications submitted to the federal Housing and Urban Development Department to obtain Community Block Development Grants that it would affirmatively further fair housing. This promise required the county to conduct an analysis of impediments to fair housing, identify ways to overcome any impediments and maintain a
record of its analysis. The federal judge found that this commitment required the county to analyze impediments based upon race. She based this finding on the Fair Housing Act, HUD regulations and HUD guidelines. She also found evidence in the form of letters and internal memoranda and HUD Training materials in the county’s possession that the county was aware of this requirement. The only issue left for trial is whether the county’s certifications were made knowingly or recklessly. An analysis of the chances of overturning the judge’s conclusion on appeal or winning at trial is, of course, a complex one but it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that the risk of losing was high. If the county lost at trial a judgment would be in the range of $200 million or greater. Some have urged that ultimate victory would be achieved at the Supreme Court. This is naive since so very few cases ever are heard by the Supreme Court.

 

But, the decision to settle could not be made by considering the risks of trial and appeal alone. The board had to weigh the obligations the county would assume if the Board approved the settlement that was negotiated by the County Executive.

 

The settlement is a complex, 38-page document and it would be impossible to capture all of its terms in this article. In basic terms it requires the county to pay approximately $62 million in settlement. The county must spend $51 .6 million of these funds to "ensure the development of 750 affordable housing units," at least 50 percent of which must be rental and the remainder homeownership units; 630 of these units are to be built in municipalities with fewer than 3 percent African Americans and 7 percent Hispanics. These are affordability criteria as to who is eligible to rent or purchase these units. The rental units are for persons or families who earn up to 65 percent of area median income and the
homeownership units for persons or families who earn up to 80 percent of AMI. The county has seven years to ensure the building of these units and must meet certain yearly benchmarks in building permits and financing. It is Subject to penalties of $60,000 per month if it does not meet the benchmarks. The settlement requires the county to take legal action as appropriate against municipalities who hinder or impede the objectives of the settlement. The county’s performance of its obligations under the settlement is overseen by a monitor appointed by the federal government. The monitor can with the consent of the government and the county, reduce the county’s obligations under the agreement, but he cannot increase them.

Three key issues required clarification:

(1) Because of ambiguous language in the settlement agreement that in addition to the $51.6 million the county would leverage "supplemental funds" to build the units. The board obtained a letter from the Justice Department a clarification in writing that the $51 .6 million could not be increased, except for penalties for non-compliance and that "supplemental funds" meant non-Westchester County funds.

(2) Because of concern that the penalties for not building 750 units or meeting the benchmarks could be imposed through no fault of the county, the board’s litigation subcommittee met with Justice Department attorneys and obtained clarification in writing of the ambiguous language regarding waiver of the penalties. This clarification stated that it was the intent of the parties that penalties would be waived if the county could not meet its obligations due to factors beyond its influence or control or due to market conditions.

(3) Because of concern regarding ambiguous language that the county was required "as appropriate" to commence legal action against municipalities that the board’s litigation subcommittee met with Justice Department attorneys and obtained clarification that it was the county’s decision to determine if it was appropriate to sue municipalities.

 

I would not have voted for the settlement without these clarifications. The board had to know the monetary exposure under the settlement to compare it to the possible $200 million judgment. Secondly, the Board was very concerned about the impact of the settlement on home rule. The other night one board colleague said that this will destroy home rule. I do not believe that is true. The county makes the decision whether it should sue a municipality and this decision would only be made if a town or village violated the law.

Try the case or settle? There are those who say we should not settle and go forward with the litigation because they fear the consequences of settling. I believe that the risks of huge judgment that the county will be fighting for years with more legal costs does not outweigh the settlement with its risks. Several colleagues advocated that we disapprove the settlement and then negotiate a new settlement. If we were to lose at trial, the county would be in much worse negotiating position. The government’s settlement demands would be much higher if it obtained a $200 million judgment.

Many residents are concerned about the effects of the settlement on their community. We have to listen to and consider those concerns. It is unfair to accuse residents with these concerns as racists. While I do not doubt that there is some racist sentiment against affordable housing, most residents have legitimate concerns about how their communities and neighborhoods would be affected by changes. This is true whenever any development is proposed in a community. Concerned residents are entitled to answers. In the end we do not even know if this settlement will result in more diverse communities or whether the county can "ensure the development" of 750 units. This will in fact depend on market conditions and many factors that the county cannot control. The important point is that we move forward to try to accomplish the settlement in cooperation with our towns and villages, the monitor and federal government and be mindful and attentive to the concerns of our residents.

My vote for the settlement was not politically popular in some areas of my district. But I could not let political expediency overcome sound judgment and what I concluded was the proper fulfillment of my fiduciary duty to my constituents.

 


The writer, a Democrat from Pleasantville, represents the 3rd District in the Westchester County Board of Legislators.

9/28/2009 9:57:39 AM

 

WHAT:  

 

 

Westchester County Legislator Lyndon Williams (D, I, WFP-Mount Vernon) is hosting a community town hall to give updates and details on the proposed fair housing settlement agreement and the Bond Act to fund costs related to the settlement.
 

 

 

WHERE: 

 

 

Doles Community Center
260 South 6th Ave (btwn West 3rd and West 4th Street)
Mount Vernon
 

 

 

WHEN:  

 

 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 7:00 p.m. SHARP
 

 

 

WHY:   

 

 

This town hall is to provide community residents with an up-to-date explanation and discussion of the recently approved fair housing settlement agreement by the County of a lawsuit that will requiring the development of up to 750 units of affordable housing.  Residents will also have the opportunity to ask questions.

 

 

 

Re: Westchester County Board Chairman Ryan Undergoes Gallbladder Procedure

10/1/2009 3:36:04 PM

 

 

“After experiencing some physical discomfort on Saturday, September 27th and after seeing his family doctor,  Westchester County Board of Legislators Chairman Bill Ryan was admitted into White Plains Hospital Center.  The medical staff determined that the best course of action was to conduct laparoscopic gallbladder surgery. The procedure, one of the most common medical procedures, was completed quickly and successfully.”

 

“He is recovering comfortably, is eating and in excellent spirits, and is looking forward to returning to a full schedule of work as soon as possible.  Chairman Ryan‘s wife, JoAnn, has been by his side at the hospital.”

 

“I want all residents to know that I’m doing great and feeling fine, and can’t wait to get back to work,” said Chairman Ryan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burton reminds residents the benefits of a healthier community by stressing early treatment and seeking early medical advice

10/2/2009 3:04:07 PM

 

What:    

 

 

Westchester County Legislator Bill Burton is hosting a Community Health Forum and the theme is “Building a Healthier Community”

 

 

Who:  

 

 

Westchester County Legislator Burton will be in attendance, along with several people on hands to discuss preventive health care options:

 

  • Westchester Livable Communities

     

     

  • Open Door Family Medical Center

     

     

  • Hudson Health Plan

     

     

  • Westchester Rockland Dietetic Association

     

     

  • EnrollNY

     

     

  • Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic

     

     

  • Collaborative for End of Life Care

     

     

 

Where:  

 

 

Ossining Public Library’s Auditorium
53 Croton Avenue (btwn Clinton Avenue and Elizabeth Street)
Ossining, New York
 

 

 

When:   

 

 

Tuesday, October 6th from 6:00pm to 9:00pm

 

 

Why:        

 

 

Westchester County Legislator Bill Burton, in collaboration with Westchester Livable Communities, Open Door Family Medical Center, Westchester Community College, Hudson Health Plan, Westchester Rockland Dietetic Association and the Ossining Public Library invite you to share your thoughts and get answers to questions and more at this free community health forum that will feature experts on nutrition, preventive care and fitness, healthy living and public and private health insurance options.  From access to care to living with a chronic condition, we’re looking to you to help identify gaps and barriers to services. 
 

 

The purpose of the Community Health Forum is to heighten the awareness of preventable health problems and encourage early detection and treatment of disease.  Part of being aware is looking at the impact of lifestyle choices on health, such as diet habits, smoking, lack of frequent medical check-ups and alcohol use.  Legislator Burton has several co-sponsors, doctors, health professionals and spokespeople available to talk with you about how the community can be better prepared to address preventable health problems.  

 

For more information on this event, please contact County Legislator Burton at (914) 995-2812 or via email at Burton@westchesterlegislators.com.

 

 

 

 

 

10/14/2009 11:02:32 AM

 

 

Legislator George Oros was proud to join thousands of other participants October 4 at the 15th Annual Support-A-Walk, the major fundraiser for Support Connection, a Yorktown-based, not-for-profit organization, led by Executive Director Kathy Quinn (shown with Legislator Oros) that provides services for women, and their families, battling breast and ovarian cancer.