Simmering tension between Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus and county lawmakers from both parties spilled out in an unusually public fashion on Tuesday, when Legislature Chairman Steve Brescia — a fellow Republican — laced into the county executive for blocking an attempted sales-tax increase that he had initially proposed and vetoing an unpopular asset-forfeiture law that originated with the District Attorney’s Office and that Republican lawmakers had supported in spite of a storm of protest.
Brescia vented his frustration during the Legislature’s annual reorganization meeting, a normally short and newsless gathering. As reported afterward by the weekly Chronicle newspaper and confirmed by Brescia, the legislative leader accused Neuhaus of causing lawmakers to “spin our wheels” during his first year in office, and demanded Neuhaus begin attending committee meetings and stay for their entirety, rather than send a delegate.
“I think it was the collective frustration of the Legislature that I spoke about,” Brescia explained on Wednesday.
He said the Legislature had spent 10 hours discussing and revising the asset-forfeiture law out of support for District Attorney David Hoovler and law-enforcement agencies, with no hint that Neuhaus would veto it until the “midnight hour,” long after Republicans had taken the political risk of supporting it. Similarly, he argued, Republicans took up Neuhaus’ own suggestion for a quarter-point increase in the county’s sales tax rate and rushed to forward the proposal to Albany for consideration, only for the county executive to reject and criticize the idea.
“His office encouraged us to get it done quick so it would get on the calendar in Albany,” Brescia said. “His office is the one that pushed that. That’s why we did it.”
Brescia added: “He wants to make himself look good and us look bad.”
Neuhaus unloaded back in a long, caustic response that the Chronicle published in full. He accused lawmakers of mangling the proposed asset-forfeiture law into something he couldn’t support, and sniped at Brescia for not attending two public comment sessions he held before vetoing the law, during which residents roundly denounced the proposal.
“Mr. Brescia earns a full-time salary at his two government jobs, plus benefits,” Neuhaus wrote, referring to Brescia’s dual roles as Legislature chairman and Montgomery mayor. “If he cannot find time to attend public comment sessions, that is unfortunate.”
Tensions were compounded at Tuesday’s meeting by an unexpected request for the Legislature to confirm Neuhaus’ selection of Mental Health Commissioner Darcie Miller to run the county’s Social Services Department as well. Lawmakers from both parties reportedly praised Miller and supported her appointment, but complained that it had surfaced without the committee review that would normally precede it. They voted overwhelmingly to defer confirmation until after this month’s committee meetings.
In an email on Thursday, Neuhaus said that Legislator Michael Amo, the chairman of the committee that oversees the Social Services Department, had asked for a vote on Miller’s appointment at Tuesday’s meeting, not the administration, and that there was a 40-day deadline for confirmation that the Legislature now can meet only by holding a special meeting. “I know an awful lot of Orange County residents who, for $50,000 a year would find time to schedule a meeting,” he wrote.
He also continued his counter-attack against Brescia: ”The bottom line is Brescia is frustrated out of guilt and wrongdoing. Guilt — because he’s been part of the gang of Legislators who spent away the County’s surplus with nothing to show for it. Wrongdoing because he voted for the asset forfeiture law while ignoring the will of the people — Conservatives, liberals and everyone in between — who said it was a bad idea. … Mr. Brescia is angry because he didn’t listen to the will of the people on this — I did. The fact is Mr. Brescia asked me not to veto the forfeiture law because he didn’t want to lose face. ”
After reading Neuhaus’ statement in the Chronicle, Brescia said on Thursday, “I’m kind of surprised that the county executive would launch a personal attack.” On “skipping” Neuhaus’ hearings on the asset-forfeiture law, Brescia said he had heard “ample viewpoints from both sides” during the committee discussions and the public-comment period that preceded the Legislature’s vote. And on Neuhaus’ argument that he had responded to public sentiment by vetoing it, Brescia pointed out that Neuhaus had no such change of heart last year after an even larger tide of opposition to his push to privatize the county nursing home.
The Legislature’s public hearings on the privatization proposal lasted more than seven hours, Brescia said, and Neuhaus “wasn’t there for one minute of it.”
Update: In an email message on Friday, county spokesman Dain Pascocello stressed that Neuhaus broached the idea of raising the sales tax rate in October as one for several future options, but did not include that in his 2015 budget and never formally proposed it. He also forwarded a Dec. 3 memo to the Legislature from County Attorney Langdon Chapman, which shows he advised lawmakers — in response to a request from Brescia — that raising the sales tax rate by March 1 would be “a challenge under all circumstances” and virtually impossible to accomplish if they waited until January to get their initial request to Albany.