Legislature Overview

Erie County government has changed in recent years to meet the needs of its residents. It has taken on new functions and expanded on others to provide the services that are needed in order to help our county programs.

Up until 1961, legislative and executive powers in Erie County were combined in the Board of Supervisors. In November of 1959, the voters of Erie County approved a Charter form of government which provided for an elected county executive who would serve as the chief administrative officer of county government. A county executive was first elected in November of 1960.

The Board of Supervisors continued to function after the approval of the Charter. There were 54 members on the Board, 27 from the City of Buffalo (each elected from a ward), and 27 other members, one from each town in the county and the cities of Lackawanna and Tonawanda. The Supervisors from the towns also served as the heads of their own town boards.

The Charter also provided that the Board of Supervisors would continue as the 'governing body' of the county, with the power to make policy decisions. The County Executive is in charge of county administration. With the adoption of the Charter, Erie County established a traditional form of legislative, executive and judicial separation of powers which is common to all other levels of government.

In 1967, following the United States Supreme Court ruling requiring that all legislative districts be approximately equal in population, the voters of Erie County, in a special referendum, authorized the establishment of a 20 member County Legislature to replace the Board of Supervisors. The legislative districts do not follow traditional political-geographic lines. The new County Legislature took office on January 1, 1968. The term of office for an Erie County Legislator is two years.

Every ten years following the U.S. Census, the Erie County Legislative districts must be reapportioned to reflect population shifts and changes. The purpose of reapportionment is to ensure that each and every voter in Erie County has equal representation.

In 1981, County Legislature boundaries were altered to reflect 1980 population figures. The Legislature's reapportionment plan reduced three legislative districts which reduced the size of the body to 17 seats.

Legislative districts were reapportioned again in 1991. Slight adjustments in the 17 district boundaries were made.

Based on the 2000 Census numbers, the Erie County Legislature passed a reapportionment plan, beginning on January 1, 2004, that included the reduction of two districts, lowering the number of districts from 17 to 15.

By a citizen referendum approving the measure, the Legislature was reduced to 11 members in November 2010, with that Legislature reapportionment and number taking effect January 1, 2012. Each of the 11 legislators now represents approximately 82,000 citizens.

Internal Organization

The Erie County Legislature is presided over by a Chairman elected each year by a majority vote of the full Legislature. Six votes constitute a majority. The members of each party in the Legislature designate one legislator of their party to serve as their leader. They are called the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader.

Every year, the Legislature also elects a Clerk. The Clerk of the Legislature appoints a staff of administrative assistants and secretarial assistants. The Clerk and the staff prepare agendas for meetings, prepare reports, send meeting notices, handle inquiries from the public and officials, and prepare the minutes of the Legislature which are its official proceedings.

To assist the Legislature in its work, each party selects a legislative assistant who collects, organizes, and analyzes data to aid the Legislators in their deliberations. A Majority Counsel is appointed to provide legal advice to majority party members. A Minority Counsel is also appointed to serve minority members.

For the purposes of facilitating the actions of the Legislature, the Chairman designates committees to study and report on specific subject areas. There are currently eight standing, permanent committees in the Erie County Legislature: Community Enrichment, Economic Development, Energy & Environment, Finance & Management, Government Affairs, Health & Human Services, Minority & Women Business Enterprise, and Public Safety.

Each committee is headed by a Chairman and a Vice Chairman appointed by the Chairman of the Legislature. All standing committees have five members. Three (3) member are from the Majority and two (2) are from the Minority. Special committees may be comprised of citizens who are not legislators.

Committee meetings are held at the call of the Chairman. It is at committee meetings where citizens may have a direct input into County policy-making by presenting proposals or speaking on matters being considered by a committee. All committee meetings are open to the public.

How The Legislature Takes Action

The operations of the Legislature are governed by a set of rules that may be changed by a majority vote of all members. The rules provide for parliamentary procedure at meetings.

Regular meetings of the full Legislature are annually scheduled by the Chairman. There are usually two legislative meetings per month, except in August when the legislature recesses.

Special meetings may be called by the Chairman or by way of a petition signed by a majority of the members. All meetings of the legislature are open to the public.

The work of the legislature involves taking action on communications from the County Executive, the various county departments and agencies, other governments, the public, and the legislators themselves. The following paragraphs will trace the steps which are followed from the time an item comes to the Legislature until action is taken.

When the County Executive, or a department head, needs legislative approval for some action which is required for the proper functioning of county government, be it the approval of the annual budget or the change in the title of a county job, a letter is sent to the legislature, often accompanied by additional information which can be used by the legislators in making a decision on the matter. Likewise, private citizens or organizations, other government and business concerns also send communications to the legislature asking that action be taken on some matter. Communications from county officials and others oftentimes do not request any specific action and are sent to the legislature to provide information or opinions on issues of concern to the legislative body.

A legislator may submit items for consideration by his or her colleagues. Usually such items come in the form of a resolution which briefly outlines an issues and suggests action which can be taken. Resolutions cover a wide range of subject areas.

A less frequent means of legislative action is the Local Law, which is required for major policy decisions such as the creation or elimination of a department or other changes in the County Charter and Administrative Code, the basic legal documents of Erie County government.

A communication, resolution or Local Law is officially received by the legislature in the Office of the Clerk. All items which are received are put on the agenda for the next meeting of the Legislature. There is a deadline for submitting items to be included on a meeting agenda, usually 11:00 a.m. three business days preceding a meeting. Items which are received later may be added to the agenda only with the unanimous approval of the legislators.

Preceding full legislative meetings, each party holds a caucus to review agenda items. The caucuses are presided over by the leaders of the respective parties. No official action takes place in a caucus.

Once an item is on the agenda of a legislative meeting, one of the four courses of action can be taken. An item can be approved, defeated, sent to a committee for study and recommendation, or received and filed. Items which are received and filed are usually of an informational nature and do not require action.

Items that are sent to committees are put on an agenda and are then either approved, defeated, received and filed, or left on the agenda of the committee for further consideration. The actions of a committee are contained in reports that recommend the action of the committee to the full legislature. When the committee reports are presented to the legislature, individual items contained in the report may be "separated" for consideration and approval or for the purpose of returning an item to committee for further study. If an item is referred back to committee it will appear in a subsequent committee report.

An item may be discharged from further committee consideration by a majority vote of the legislature. After being discharged, the item is considered for approval.

The legislature may sometimes require a county department or official to study a matter and report back with recommendations for possible action. In such case the whole legislative process may be repeated on an item.

The legislature may also leave an item 'on the table' for consideration at some future time. In the case of local laws which are introduced, each proposal must remain on the table of the legislature for at least eight days, including Sunday, before action may be taken.

Certain actions of the legislature require the approval of the County Executive before they may take effect. Among such actions are all local laws, emergency appropriations and allocations form the county contingency fund. In addition, State law requires that certain types of local laws be put before the voters for final approval.

Following each meeting of the legislature, the Clerk's office prepares the official minutes of the meeting. Legislative action, including votes of the legislators, is recorded. Any one legislator may request a roll call on any vote and all roll call votes are listed in the minutes. After the minutes have been printed, copies are distributed to various officials to inform them of the actions of the Legislature. These minutes are also public record, and as such, are available for inspection at any time in the offices of the Erie County Legislature.

Powers of The Legislature

The County Legislature shall have, but not by way of limitation, the following powers and duties.

a. To make appropriations, levy taxes and incur indebtedness.

b. To exercise all powers of local legislation in relation to enacting, amending, repealing or rescinding local laws, legalizing acts, ordinances, or resolutions, subject to veto by the County Executive in such instances as are specifically provided in this charter.

c. By local law to adopt, amend and repeal an administrative code which shall set forth the details of administration of the county government in harmony with the provisions of this Charter and may contain revisions, simplification, consolidations, codifications and restatements of special laws, local laws, ordinances, resolutions, rules and regulations consistent with this charter.

d. By local law to create, alter, combine or abolish county administrative units not headed by elected officers.

e. To adopt by resolution all necessary rules and regulations for its conduct and procedure.

f. To fix the compensation of all officers and employees paid from county funds, except members of the judiciary.

g. To fix the amount of bonds of officers and employees paid from county funds.

h. To make such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interest of the county and in connection therewith to obtain professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary or material to the study or inquiry.

Legislative Rules of Order

2014 Rules of Order available here.