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Prescription for partisanship 

            And there's no sign that it'll get prettier anytime soon. The deep rift between Democrats and Republicans in the Monroe County Legislature spilled into the light of open session Wednesday during debate at a Ways and Means committee meeting.

            Democrats, who are in the minority in the legislature, want the county to consider allowing its employees to buy prescription drugs from Canada through the county's health plan, to save money. Republicans don't reject the plan outright, but say they're worried about doing something illegal. The federal Food and Drug Administration maintains that foreign drugs are unsafe and can't be legally imported by local governments, but many states, counties, and cities nationwide are doing so anyway.

            At Wednesday's meeting, the Ways and Means Committee was considering a Democratic proposal asking the administration to provide information about the county's current drug program. That would let CanaRx, a Canadian-based mail-order pharmacy, calculate the savings it could provide the county. The previous evening, the same proposal was before the legislature's Human Services Committee. But rather than voting on it, the committee simply referred it to County Executive Maggie Brooks' administration for more information, asking for a report back by the October legislative meeting.

            Democratic Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley, the proposal's chief sponsor, says Democrats introduced the legislation only because they've been stonewalled previously. More than a month ago, they asked the administration for the information and hadn't gotten it, she said last week.

            If the committees had voted in favor of the Democrats' proposal and the legislature had approved it, Brooks would have been required to provide the information the Democrats want. Because the Republican majority referred the request directly to Brooks' office, Brooks could decide not to pursue the request.

            Democrats say when their proposals are referred to the administration this way, they never return. The practice isn't new: It was also a problem during former County Executive Jack Doyle's administration, Aldersley says. Has a referral to the administration ever been returned to the committee that referred it? "Not during my tenure," says Aldersley, who's been a county legislator since 1998. Republicans counter that by adding the deadline to the Democrats' request, they've laid to rest such fears.

            But Aldersley charges that the Republicans are abusing the referral system to protect themselves. They don't force Brooks' hand; nor do they have to vote against a potentially popular piece of legislation. In the process, Democrats argue, the county residents they represent --- mainly in the City of Rochester and a few inner-ring suburbs --- are effectively being disenfranchised in the lej.

The atmosphere in the legislative chambers Wednesday began to sour almost immediately, when Ways and Means Chair Jack Driscoll announced that he planned to follow the lead of the Human Services Committee and refer the proposal to the administration.

            Democratic Legislator Bill Benet made a motion to have Ways and Means vote on the proposal, but Driscoll intervened before another legislator could second it. "There is no need to vote on it," said Driscoll. "We are not the lead committee. It has already been referred."

            The fight that followed lasted for an hour, with tempers on both sides flaring. Democrats and Republicans argued over issues that could seem arcane (legislature rules, points of order), but dealt with an important issue: whether legislators who are in the majority have the right to bottle up, without a public vote, a measure they disagree with.

            Here's a sample of the debate:

            Benet: "You ruled that I as a legislator do not have the right under the rules to make a motion at this time?"

            Driscoll: "Making a motion at this point in time is moot. It has already been referred [by] the lead committee."

            Benet: "Can you cite the rule of the legislature that would make it moot?"

            Driscoll: "The chair has ruled. You can appeal the ruling of the chair."

            Benet: "Let me understand this. You're saying that you have the right to refer even if there are objections?"

            Driscoll: "No, if you object, certainly we'll note your objections. Absolutely."

            Benet: "You'll note my objection, or you will refer it even over my objection?"

            Driscoll: "Yes, to both questions."

Benet persisted with his questions, and a few moments later Driscoll interrupted him, striking his gavel four times sharply. "The chair has ruled," he said. "You are absolutely within your rights to appeal the ruling of the chair."

            Benet promptly did so and launched into a speech, his voice taut with emotion:

            "You have not shown one thing or stated one thing under the rules of the legislature that permits you to do this [reject it over an objection]. All referrals do is insure that you have the right to run roughshod over the minority whenever you want, and deny us the right to make resolutions and move resolutions when we desire to do so. That's what you're trying to do.

            "You may get away with it, because the majority rules and you can be sustained by a majority. But it's not right, Mr. Chairman. You're violating the fundamental principle of Roberts Rules of Order, which is a motion is in order any time. We have the right to make that motion; that's what we were elected to do. You're denying us that right. If you are going to deny me that right, we are going to have a verbal fight over it, not just today, but on the floor of the legislature, and over and over and over again [by this point Benet was striking the table], because I will not be silenced because you think it's politically inconvenient."

            Democrat Todd Bullard was next. "I do think that we should take this matter of referring to the administration more seriously," he said. "The bottom line is, when something comes to a committee, part of our job is to work on it, to act on it."

            If legislators only refer proposals to the administration, he said "it just goes into a black hole. We get a report back; nothing else happens."

            Aldersley also spoke, charging that the referral process was "being used in a political manner" so Republican don't have to vote for a Democratic proposal.

            "I remember when Democrats were in the majority in this chamber and there were many bipartisan votes," she said. "So I don't really understand the lockstep rule that the majority seems to have that no Democratic referral ever gets a vote, or gets a yes vote, even when you like something --- clearly you guys like this one, but you just can't do it. The referral process is being abused, and I think that's at the bottom of our concern with the process."

            Majority Leader Bill Smith of Pittsford argued that suggestions of abuse were overblown. "The reality is that [for] much of the procedure that goes on in our chambers, the rules are silent," he said. "The rules are not comprehensive. They don't pretend to be comprehensive. There's an awful lot of procedure, custom, and precedent built up over time that's involved in it."

            Benet sharply objected to this assessment, but moments later Driscoll's ruling was upheld in a vote that followed party lines. And the proposal to explore importing Canadian prescription drugs never went to a vote in the committee.

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