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Should convicted felons hold Erie County office?

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After an extended debate Thursday, Erie County legislators voted to send a proposed ban on people convicted of some crimes from holding elective or appointive offices in county government back to committee.

The proposal is to keep out of appointive or elective office those who committed malfeasance or misconduct in office revolving around financial crimes. Northtowns Republican Legislator Ed Rath is the bill's sponsor. He said it is in the best interest of the public to keep people out of office who commit crimes.

"We tried to narrow the definition as best we could to financial crimes," Rath said, "and I've gone through the list of the names of the offenses - rather, extortion, theft, perjury, fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement. I truly believe that if someone has conducted those financial crimes and it rises to the level of a felony conviction, they have lost the trust of the voters and they've lost the capacity to lead on an issue."

Where it became complicated during the debate was on the issue of which crimes would be covered and what to do about someone with a criminal record who can bring deep knowledge to some of the county's array of appointive boards and agencies. Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo said that difference is important and worth further discussion.

"Which is why we need a committee discussion. I'm not opposed to the law in principle. I don't believe that people who break the law should be making laws," Lorigo said. "I came to the public hearing. There was nobody here that spoke. Discussion at committees and working together to make the law better and have more teeth is something that we should pursue and something that doesn't happen enough."

Since this is a Local Law, when Rath tried to change some of the wording, he was told it could not be done without going back through the process, including a public hearing.

Buffalo Democratic Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams said many of her constituents were opposed.

"Individuals that have been convicted of specific felonies have paid their debt to society. They have did whatever was required and they're back within society," Miller-Williams said. "I do not feel that it is our responsibility or our duty to determine who serves or who wants to run for public office. Let the voters decide."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.