A Schoharie County supervisor could face a fine for his role in a lawsuit that pitted half the county Board of Supervisors’ membership against its chairman.
State Supreme Court Justice Eugene P. Devine scheduled an Oct. 9 hearing where Supervisor J. Carl Barbic, D-Seward, will get a chance to be heard on the issue of sanctions for alleged “frivolous conduct.”
Devine, in an Aug. 14 ruling, dismissed the lawsuit eight supervisors filed against Board Chairman Harold Vroman, R-Summit, ruling that court involvement would violate the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers.
The Constitution establishes three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — none of which are supposed to hold more power than the other.
“It is well settled that courts of law must avoid matters which would frustrate or undermine the legislative process. Particularly where constitutional issues are not implicated and the dispute centers around internal operations of a county legislature, courts must abstain from interfering,” Devine wrote in the decision.
The group of supervisors, led by Supervisor Philip Skowfoe, D-Fulton, filed suit against Vroman in April after he pulled several of them from their committee assignments.
Adding their names to the lawsuit against Vroman, in addition to Skowfoe and Barbic, were Larry Bradt, R-Carlisle, Donald Brandow, R-Conesville, Eugene Milone, D-Schoharie and Sandra Manko, D-Sharon. Earl Van Wormer of Esperance and James Buzon of Middleburgh.
The lawsuit alleged Vroman violated county law, which calls for committee assignments to extend for the full year of a supervisor’s term.
Many of those whose committee assignments were changed had voted earlier to eliminate the county’s flood recovery committee, of which Vroman was a member.
Some alleged Vroman’s change in assignments served as punishment for their voting against his wishes.
But Vroman, in responding court documents, said the committees as established were wrought with infighting and dysfunction that led to inaction, so he shifted assignments mid-year to restore “order and decorum.”
In addition to dismissing the lawsuit, Devine takes issue with Barbic’s actions related to the issue in June.
Barbic was among the eight supervisors who signed onto the lawsuit as a petitioner against Vroman the day the lawsuit was drafted, June 5.
Earlier that same day, Barbic joined nine other supervisors voting against a board resolution seeking to appeal Vroman’s decision to change committee assignments.
“Such vote was in direct contravention of the position [Barbic] now purports to take in this proceeding,” Devine wrote in the decision.
Devine said in the ruling that Barbic could have voted in favor of appealing Vroman’s committee changes — a move that would have overturned Vroman’s changes.
“Such frivolous conduct and the strain that it places on judicial resources cannot be condoned,” Devine wrote.
Barbic on Monday declined to comment on the case.
County Attorney Michael West, who represented Vroman in the case, said Devine’s decision marks the first time in 30 years that sanctions have been threatened in a case he’s been involved in.
West said the case doesn’t appear ripe for an appeal — it would take at least a year for an appeal to work its way through the courts, and new committee assignments will be issued in January by whichever supervisor is elected chairman for 2013.
Attorney Alexander Powhida, who represented supervisors against Vroman, said in an email Monday that an appeal was being considered but no decision had been made. He declined further comment.
Efforts to reach Skowfoe were unsuccessful Monday.
Vroman said he believes committees have been operating more effectively following the changes that were disputed in the lawsuit.
Devine scheduled an Oct. 9 hearing to “provide Mr. Barbic with a reasonable opportunity to be heard on the issue of sanctions.”