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Ruling halts Police Accountability Board referendum

City Council plans to appeal the judge's decision


[ UPDATED ] If a court ruling stands, Rochesterians won't vote on a Police Accountability Board referendum in November. Supreme Court Justice John Ark handed down a decision yesterday that blocks the vote. Ark said a court will need a chance to more thoroughly review the legislation that creates the accountability board.

City Council President Loretta Scott said Council plans to appeal Ark's ruling.

In May, City Council unanimously approved a law that would create the board as well as a related referendum required by state law. Earlier this month, the Locust Club police union filed a lawsuit to block the referendum. In today's ruling, Ark said that because of the complexity of the union's challenges and the city's response, more time is need to review the issues.

"It would be a disservice to the community for the Court to render its legal judgment on such important legislation without a thorough analysis of the legality of the Statute," Ark wrote.

Council's legislation provided for an accountability board independent of city government with the power to investigate allegations of misconduct by police and discipline officers. The board would be a stark departure from current procedure, which leaves investigations and discipline of officers up to a unit of the Rochester Police Department and the police chief, respectively.

The union argued that  putting the power to enact an accountability board in the hands of voters and eliminating the chief’s authority to discipline officers violates state and federal law and runs afoul of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with police.

Military and absentee ballots have already been printed with the referendum on them, though the Board of Elections has not printed the ballots for polling places yet. In his ruling, Ark said the Monroe County Board of Elections can "authorize and distribute" ballots with the referendum on them. But the Board of Elections can't authorize the vote on the referendum "until further order of this or an appellate court," Ark said.

In his ruling, Ark said he "fully anticipates more thorough litigation of the issues." And, he said, the city would not be hurt by delaying the referendum while that takes place.

"The opportunity which this case presents should not be squandered with only a cursory review of the Statute's legal implications," Ark wrote. While the law Council passed may be legal, Ark wrote, further review by a court could lead to changes to it, making a "hastily-passed referendum" defective.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the referendum won't be on the November ballot. Some ballots have already been printed , but votes won't be authorized unless a future court ruling orders that.