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Monroe County Democrats head back to court over elections commissioner feud


State Supreme Court Justice John Ark is scheduled to hear an update Friday on a lawsuit filed in the spring about the process of appointing a Democratic Monroe County elections commissioner.

The proceeding takes on new importance after a county Legislature meeting this week in which a bloc of Democratic legislators negotiated with Republicans to delay the appointment of City Council member Jackie Ortiz to the commissioner post.

Five Democrats, including Minority Leader Vincent Felder and Assistant Minority Leader Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, joined with Republicans in the Legislature in a 20-to-9 vote to table a measure to confirm Ortiz.

After the vote, Flagler-Mitchell cast the matter as a court battle beyond the intra-party fighting that has plagued the commissioner appointment process for months.

“Some of my colleagues wanted to have the vote get pushed through because they know their case has no merit,” Flagler-Mitchell said. “The reality is that we got sued. You know what I’m saying? And we are not to move until the court case is done.”

Members of the Monroe County Democratic Committee sued the committee and the Legislature in May to block what appeared at the time to be a move by legislative leaders to appoint a commissioner, thereby bypassing an internal party selection process.

Ark eventually ruled that the committee could hold an election among its members to vote for a commissioner. That vote took place in July at a drive-thru election at Genesee Valley Park in which Ortiz won in a landslide, according to the committee.

But Flagler-Mitchell questioned the legitimacy of that election, saying that he neither approved nor participated in it and that the location of the vote prevented many party members from casting a ballot.

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, who joined with two of her colleagues on the Legislature to file a cross-claim in the litigation to push for the election, cast stalling the appointment of Ortiz as a power grab. She said top party leaders, including the chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, Brittaney Wells, helped plan the election and that no concerns were raised about its location.

“This was a fair election,” Barnhart said. “This was an inclusive election. No one complained at the time about how the election was conducted.

“What we’re seeing now is a knockdown, dragout fight,” she continued. “Over power, over jobs, over elections, over redistricting. This is all about circumventing the democratic process. If you don’t like the outcome, blow it up. That’s what we’re witnessing here. Delay. Delay. Delay. Chaos. Chaos. Chaos.”

As for Friday’s hearing, she said it's likely that Ark will be asked to intervene.

“I imagine there will be some parties on Friday asking Judge Ark to take bolder action in this case,” Barnhart said.

What that bolder action could be is unclear, but Flagler-Mitchell speculated that the judge could force the parties to start from scratch.

Includes reporting from James Brown of WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.