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April 4, 2011

Only a resident of the town may be appointed to serve in a public office of the town

Only a resident of the town may be appointed to serve in a public office of the town
Matter of Ricket v Mahan, 2011 NY Slip Op 02520, Appellate Division, Third Department

After the Town Board of the Town of Colonie passed two resolutions — one appointing John H. Cunningham to a two-year term as Commissioner of Public Works and another appointing Michael M. Burick to a six-year term as Personnel Officer, Theodore W. Ricket, a resident of the Town of Colonie, commenced an Article 78 proceeding challenging both appointments.

Ricket contended that Cunningham's appointment was invalid because he did not reside in the Town, nor did he possess the qualifications established for this position by the Town in its local law.*

As to Burick's appointment as Personnel Officer, Ricket complained that the appointment was invalid because, under the Town Law, as the Town Board was only authorized to appoint him for the remainder of his predecessor's unexpired term.

Supreme Court dismissed Ricket’s petition with respect to Cunningham but determined that Burick could only be appointed by the Town Board for the unexpired portion of his predecessor's term, and so modified his appointment to this position.

Both the Town and Ricket, respectively, appealed the Supreme Court’s rulings.

By way of background, the Appellate Division noted that after the Town had abolished the Office of Superintendent of Highways — an elected position that could only be held by a Town resident — it enacted a local law creating the position of Commissioner of Public Works - Town of Colonie Code §34 This local law, among other things, provided for “an appointed position with a definite term, and set forth a description of the position's official responsibilities and the qualifications needed to be appointed to this position.” However, the local law was silent as to whether the appointee had to be a Town resident.

Since the local law is silent as to whether the Commissioner of Public Works must be a Town resident, the Appellate Division ruled that the issue presented is whether state law serves to impose such a requirement. First, noted the court, the Town, when it enacted this local law, made no reference to any state statute, nor did it identify in the local law any state statute that it intended to supercede.

In this context, the Appellate Division noted that two state statutes are implicated by this proceeding.

1. The Public Officers Law §3(1), provides that "[n]o person shall be capable of holding a civil office who shall not, at the time he [or she] shall be chosen thereto, . . . be a citizen of the United States, a resident of the state, and if it be a local office, a resident of the political subdivision or municipal corporation of the state for which he [or she] shall be chosen, or within which the electors electing him [or her] reside" (emphasis by the court);** and

2. The Town Law §23(1), states that all "elective officer[s] of the town" and "[e]very other officer of the town at the time of his [or her] appointment and throughout his [or her] term of office shall be an elector of the town" (emphasis by the court). An elector of a town is an individual who may register as a voter therein regardless of whether that person has actually registered (see 1985 Atty Gen [Inf Op] 143).

Although the Town Law identifies some town officers that must be town residents, such as town supervisor and superintendent of highways, this listing, said the court, is not exhaustive and specifically provides that "[a]ll other officers and employees in such a town shall be appointed by the town board." In other words, the state law provides that if a town enacts a local law creating a public or civil office and the person appointed to it is a town officer, the appointee must be a town resident.

However, as neither the Public Officers Law nor the Town Law defines what constitutes a public or civil office or who qualifies as a town officer, the Appellate Division ruled  that such a determination must of necessity depend upon the nature of the position, its role in town governance and whether the position involved has responsibilities that require a "high degree of initiative and independent judgment" The Appellate Division also noted “other factors to be considered are whether an oath of office*** is required and whether the appointment is for a definite term,” citing 2006 Atty Gen [Inf Op] 1032).

The court then ruled:

“Here, the Commissioner of Public Works takes an oath of office (see Town of Colonie Code § 34-10), serves a two-year term and, according to the Town Code, is "the principal executive officer and administrative head of the Department of Public Works . . . with such powers as shall be necessary for the proper administration of the Department of Public Works consistent with applicable laws" (Town of Colonie Code § 34-3 [A]). Given the nature of this position — and the crucial role it plays providing essential services for the Town — we conclude that the Commissioner of Public Works is a town officer who must be a town resident. Since Cunningham has acknowledged that he was not a Town resident when he was appointed to this position, and does not intend to become one in the future, his appointment as Commissioner of Public Works does not comport with relevant state law and is invalid.

Const, art VIII, § 1), we note that no one has claimed during this proceeding that these payments were not made for services rendered. As such, the conclusion reached herein does not serve to alter the fact that Cunningham earned the compensation for which he was paid and, as such, the salary and benefits he earned while serving in this position did not constitute an illegal gift of public funds.

“As for Burick's appointment as Personnel Officer, the Town Law specifically provides that "[w]henever a vacancy shall occur or exist in any town office, the town board or a majority of the members thereof, may appoint a qualified person to fill the vacancy" and that when "the appointment [is] made to fill a vacancy in an appointive office, the person so appointed shall hold office for the remainder of the unexpired term" (Town Law §64[5] [emphasis by the court). This provision is controlling and, thus, as Supreme Court found, Burick's appointment as Personnel Officer must be limited to the remainder of his predecessor's unexpired term (see Civil Service Law §15[1][b])****.”

* Ricket also sought a declaration that the salary and benefits paid to Cunningham while he served as Commissioner constituted "an unconstitutional gift of public funds" that must be returned to the Town.

** An elector of a town is an individual who may register as a voter therein regardless of whether that person has actually registered (see 1985 Atty Gen [Inf Op] 143).

*** See, also, Civil Service Law §62 which, in pertinent part, “Every person employed by the state or any of its civil divisions, except an employee in the labor class, before he shall be entitled to enter upon the discharge of any of his duties, shall take and file an oath or affirmation in the form and language prescribed by the constitution for executive, legislative and judicial officers….. execute his or her requires “Constitutional oath upon appointment.”

**** Civil Service Law §15[1][b], in pertinent part, provides that the Personnel of a suburban town described in subdivision four of section two of this chapter shall be appointed by the town board of such town. … The term of office of a personnel officer shall be six years…. A personnel officer shall have all the powers and duties of a municipal civil service commission.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:  
http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2011/2011_02520.htm
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