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Legislators introduce resolution calling for removal of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz's emergency powers

Posted at 4:00 PM, Nov 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-24 09:19:55-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Erie County Legislature Minority Caucus has introduced a resolution that, if passed, would call on the New York State Senate and Assembly to revoke Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz's emergency powers.

The resolution was submitted by Legislators Joseph Lorigo, Christopher Greene, Frank Todaro and John Mills. It calls for state senators and assemblymembers from Western New York to introduce and pass legislation to revoke the county's emergency order. County legislators cannot remove emergency powers, the New York State Legislature has the authority to do so.

Under state law, a county executive can declare a county-wide state of emergency for a term of 30 days. However, they also have the authority to extend an emergency declaration for another 30 days. Similarly, local emergency orders such as mask mandates have a term of five days, but can be extended.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has extended the state of emergency for the county every 30 days since March 15, 2020. The emergency orders spanning that nearly 21-month period cover 1244 pages.

“As of right now, I think Erie County is the only county in the state of New York to still have a state of emergency,” said Republican Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo.

The state of emergency has been used to implement county policies, programs and infrastructure to curb and prevent the spread of COVID-19. There have been more than 2,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in Erie County, and as of November 22, hospital capacity had climbed past 90%.

Lorigo says the Erie County Legislature was not consulted about any of Poloncarz’s new phased approach to fighting COVID-19. Lorigo and the other legislators in the minority caucus argue that, "it is our belief that the presence of COVID-19 in our community is no longer temporary and no longer constitutes an emergency."

7 Eyewitness News reached out to Peter Anderson, press secretary for the county executive, for a response. Anderson pointed our reporter to a letter sent by Poloncarz back in June— five months ago— to the legislature, detailing his authority under New York State Executive Law. In the letter, Poloncarz writes, "there are multiple reasons for the continued extension of the original state of emergency declaration, primarily so county departments, offices and divisions can continue to respond to the pandemic, including offering COVID-19 vaccine clinics."

We were told the county executive was "not available" for an interview on this issue Tuesday.

7 Eyewitness News also reached out to New York State Assemblyman Pat Burke, a member of the New York State delegation called on to act.

“As far as I know, there isn't a process for the state legislature to 'revoke' a local county executive's emergency powers other than changing the statute," Burke said. "I have heard this being passed around by Republican members of the Erie County Legislature. We're looking into their claim.”

In response to Burke's statement, we looked up the law in the New York State Senate database of Consolidated Laws of New York, which is publicly accessible here.

Chapter 18, Article 2-B, Section 24 of the Consolidated Laws of New York covers "Local state of emergency; local emergency orders by chief executive," including the methods in which someone in Poloncarz's role can declare and extend a local state of emergency and emergency orders. The final subsection of this state law, Section 24-8, reads:

The legislature may terminate by concurrent resolution, such emergency orders at any time.

Whether or not the county legislature were to pass the resolution introduced by the minority caucus, members of the New York State Legislature would ultimately have to draft, introduce and pass their own resolution to revoke any emergency orders in Erie County.

When asked about this issue, Democratic Senator Sean Ryan said:

Early in the pandemic, the state legislature gave the Governor great power to deal with COVID. With those powers removed, local governments have broad authority to manage public health responses based on the realities of their individual situations. I appreciate local officials like County Executive Poloncarz stepping up to protect public health, as we experience a spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations, driven by the unvaccinated population. I urge everyone in Erie County to get vaccinated, get your booster shot, and take precautions to stay safe.

Republican Congressman Chris Jacobs said:

The last thing we need are more lockdowns and mandates, especially vaccine mandates. The ones enacted by the President are a vast overreach of this authority and threaten our military readiness, functioning of our government, and our economic recovery. The new restrictions being threatened for private businesses in Erie County by Mark Poloncarz will have equally devastating effects on our economy. While I believe the vaccines are safe and effective, I believe every American should have the right to make this decision without fear of punishment or retaliation from those supposedly elected to serve them. I strongly oppose vaccine mandates and will continue to fight them in Washington, and locally.