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Judge: Assessor can stay in elected role as case is reviewed

09/03/2015 2:57 PM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO  |  Mason Haas in his office in Town Hall.

After hearing oral arguments Thursday afternoon, a Suffolk County Supreme Court judge deferred ruling on the lawsuit filed by tax assessor Mason Haas against the Town of Riverhead, allowing him to remain in his elected position as the judge reviews the case.

Mr. Haas, who is the chairman of the Riverhead Republican Committee, is suing the town over an ethics law passed in July that he claims is a personal, unconstitutional attack. The law forbids any town elected official from holding an executive position with a political party, and since Mr. Haas falls into both categories, he would be forced to resign from one of those two roles.

On Aug. 28, Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Santorelli granted a temporary restraining order on that law to prevent it from taking hold pending a decision, and Thursday, Justice Paul Baisley allowed that to continue as he considers the details of the case.

He stressed in the courtroom that he “neither granted nor denied” a temporary restraining order, but merely maintained the “status quo” set down by Justice Santorelli. He then told lawyers that the case would continue in a few days.

Mr. Haas himself did not appear in court, but his lawyer, Lane Bubka of Bubka Law Group in Riverhead, argued the law would unjustly force Mr. Haas to step down as chairman.

Such an act, the lawsuit alleges, is a violation of the right of political association protected under the First Amendment.

“Having to resign from one [position] or the other is a harm to him,” Mr. Bubka said in court. “And at this crucial time with election season coming up, to try to change leadership right now is harmful to the party.”

Patricia Meisenheimer, whose firm was hired on Tuesday to represent Riverhead in the case, disagreed that the new policy is unconstitutional. She said under the ethics law, Mr. Haas is only forbidden from holding an executive position in a political party, not from participating in general.

“He can still continue acting in a political party of his choice,” she said.

Mr. Bubka pointed to the example of Babylon — where Supervisor Rich Schaffer simultaneously serves as the chairman of the Suffolk County Democratic Committee — as evidence that it is possible to serve in both spheres.

He also argued Riverhead’s law unfairly targeted Mr. Haas since he is the only person in the area who is both elected and also holds an executive position in a political party.

“This amendment does not affect anybody else in the town,” Mr. Bubka said.

Mr. Bubka claimed the law was instituted as a petty form of payback — something Mr. Haas has said himself — based on the history between the assessor and supervisor.

Two years ago, the law was proposed and put forth to the ethics board, which suggested that the Town Board limit the regulations to “policy-making” positions — and define which roles would fall under that category. The Town Board never did so.

Mr. Bubka alleged that the law was only put back into consideration recently after the Republican Committee decided not to nominate incumbent Supervisor Sean Walter and incumbent Councilman James Wooten for the upcoming election.

Mr. Bubka also stressed in court Thursday that Mr. Haas does not pass any laws himself, so he cannot act unilaterally in his own party’s interest.

“He is only enforcing policy of the town, not creating it,” he said.

Ms. Meisenheimer explained that allowing elected officials to serve as political party executives poses “a tremendous conflict to the public.” Those officials could, perhaps, act in their party’s interests rather than according to the needs of constituents. Therefore, she said, the law is meant to counter corruption.

“This was not a revision of the Code of Conduct that is personal,” she said. “It will prospectively affect everyone.”

She cited a 1990 case decided in the New York State Court of Appeals, Golden v. Clark, as precedent for the Riverhead ethics law. In that case, New York City passed similar legislation preventing individuals from holding elected office and political-party leadership simultaneously. The Court of Appeals voted 5-2 to uphold that law as valid and constitutional.

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