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Peck’s attendance at caucus questioned

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St. Lawrence County Republicans and Democrats are sniping at each other over whether Legislator Donald A. Peck’s attendance at Democratic caucuses violates the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Mr. Peck, Gouverneur, who recently had the support of Democrats to become the board’s vice chairman, changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat in November, but the switch does not become effective until after the next general election. He began caucusing with the Democrats at the invitation of Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, chairman of the county legislative conference.

The 15-member board has eight Democrats. If Mr. Peck’s attendance is illegal, his presence as a Republican creates a quorum of the full board.

“If a majority of the board is meeting and they’re discussing public business, that would fall under the Open Meetings Law and should be open,” said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. “He is not yet a registered Democrat. He is a registered something else. A caucus must be members of the same political party.”

Democrats should follow the law, county Republican Chairman Thomas L. Jenison said.

“They should have been aware,” he said. “They have to look at whether they want to continue.”

Democrats researched the legality of Mr. Peck’s attendance before inviting him to the caucus, Mr. Burns said.

County Democratic Chairman Mark J. Bellardini sought the advice of Frank G. Hoare, an attorney and former executive director of the state Democratic Committee, who said an exemption exists under which Mr. Peck can attend the caucus either as an invited guest or as an adherent of Democratic Party principles.

“That’s what the state Legislature has used when one party decides to sit with another,” Mr. Hoare said. “That’s what I advised Mr. Bellardini.”

Case law exists on both sides of the argument.

In 2006, a state Supreme Court judge concluded that a private assembly of the Democratic majority of the Erie County Legislature was not an exempt political caucus given the presence of the Republican county executive. Last year, a state appeals court rejected a lawsuit challenging New York’s gay marriage law, determining that Republican state senators did not violate the Open Meetings Law when they had closed-door sessions with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who are not members of the GOP.

The difference in Mr. Peck’s case is that he is a member of the county board, said Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler.

“You can invite guests to a caucus and we have done that,” he said. “The difference is the invitees are not members of the governing body. It probably would be best for him to wait until he switches his party. That’s not to say you can’t talk with Democrats.”

If it is legitimate for Republicans and Democrats to meet together privately to discuss business, then they could call a full meeting of the board and exclude the public, Mr. MacKinnon said.

“If it continues, they are meeting illegally,” said Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg.

Mr. Freeman should go after independent Democrats who have joined with the Republican conference in the state Legislature to create a new coalition majority rather than criticize St. Lawrence County Democrats who are meeting with a fellow legislator who is a Republican in name only, Mr. Burns said.

“It’s that adherence to belief in what the party is doing that changes everything,” Mr. Burns said. “Don is joining us because he agrees with us. I don’t see where it is illegal or improper. There’s definitely precedents for this.”

Mr. Peck said he wanted to do what was legal.

“One says one thing, one says the other,” Mr. Peck said. “I’m going to go until they disinvite me.”

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