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Ruling halts referendum on Police Accountability Board

Sep 25, 2019

Rochester's Police Accountability Board proposal will appear on the ballot in November, but you won't be able to vote on it unless a court rules that votes can be counted.

Supreme Court Justice John Ark issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday barring the proposal from being voted on in November. Ark said a court will need a chance to more thoroughly review the legislation creating the accountability board.

Credit James Brown / WXXI

Ballots for the Nov. 5 election have already been printed, with the referendum on them, and Ark said the Monroe County Board of Elections can "authorize and distribute" those ballots. 

But the Board of Elections can't authorize the vote on the referendum "until further order of this or an appellate court," Ark said. City Council President Loretta Scott said Council plans to appeal Ark's ruling.

In May, City Council unanimously approved a law that would create the board as well as a related referendum required by state law. Earlier this month, the Locust Club police union filed a lawsuit to block the referendum. In the ruling, Ark said that because of the complexity of the union's challenges and the city's response, more time is need to review the issues. 

"It would be a disservice to the community for the Court to render its legal judgment on such important legislation without a thorough analysis of the legality of the Statute," Ark wrote.

Council's legislation provided for an accountability board independent of city government with the power to investigate allegations of misconduct by police and discipline officers. The board would be a stark departure from current procedure, which leaves investigations and discipline of officers up to a unit of the Rochester Police Department and the police chief, respectively.

 

City Council President Loretta Scott
Credit James Brown / WXXI

The union argued that putting the power to enact an accountability board in the hands of voters and eliminating the chief’s authority to discipline officers violates state and federal law and runs afoul of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with police.

In his ruling, Ark said he "fully anticipates more thorough litigation of the issues." And, he said, the city would not be hurt by delaying the referendum while that takes place.

"The opportunity which this case presents should not be squandered with only a cursory review of the Statute's legal implications," Ark wrote. While the law Council passed may be legal, Ark wrote, further review by a court could lead to changes to it, making a "hastily passed referendum" defective.

Scott responded to the decision in a statement via email:

"I am disappointed with today’s court decision and feel that Judge Ark’s ruling to disallow the referendum vote while still printing the proposition on the ballot will be confusing to voters," said Scott.  "Our plan is to seek immediate review of this decision by a higher court and it is my hope that the matter will be heard expeditiously allowing for Rochesterians’ voices to be heard on November 5th."

The Rochester Police Locust Club issued a statement on the matter:

"We are pleased that the court has seen the need to stay the referendum vote at this time. From the start of city council’s work on this legislation we attempted to explain the need to thoroughly understand and research the intricate specifics that encompass police discipline. City Council did a disservice to the community and our members by disregarding our input and the input of the police department when crafting legislation for a board that would ultimately discipline police.”   

Advocates for the referendum, the Police Accountability Board Alliance issued a statement saying that it was disappointed in Wednesday's decision, but is confident a higher court "will rule in favor of justice, democracy, and the PAB."

The Alliance says that City Council has pledged to appeal the decision and that it is likely the appeal will be heard in October. 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the referendum won't be on the November ballot.