AP News

Westchester County acts to avoid contempt charge

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — Faced with a contempt-of-court threat, Westchester County's top executive said Thursday the county will seek to reintroduce legislation forbidding landlords from rejecting tenants who receive federal rent subsidies.

County Executive Rob Astorino told a court-appointed monitor, James E. Johnson, in a letter that he was "left with no choice" but to notify legislative authorities by the end of the month that the "source of income" legislation should be reintroduced. The legislation is a key provision of a 3-year-old fair housing settlement.

Astorino sent the letter a day after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan threatened the county with contempt-of-court, saying the county was "in defiance" of a May 3 court order to push the legislation.

U.S. District Judge Denise Cote in Manhattan earlier this month ordered the county to disclose its plans to comply with the May order. The county last Friday said it will await the outcome of its appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before taking up the legislation.

Bharara on Wednesday called the county's position "unacceptable." He added: "The County's suggestion that it can simply wait until the Second Circuit decides its appeal is patently wrong as a matter of law."

Cote had ruled Astorino violated the 2009 housing agreement when he vetoed a source-of-income bill in 2010. The original settlement required that the county executive "promote" the legislation. Astorino maintained that his predecessor had promoted the bill, fulfilling the requirement. But Cote said Astorino's veto was "an unambiguous breach" of the settlement.

The settlement also called for Westchester to build or acquire 750 units of affordable housing over seven years — especially in its mostly-white towns and villages — and market them to nonwhites. The county says construction is ahead of schedule.

In a Thursday news release, Astorino also emphasized his reluctance to move forward on "source of income" legislation, saying he will wait to see it in its final form before deciding whether to sign it. The release said he opposes it because he believes it takes away the rights of property owners and hurts the prospects of building affordable housing.

The county said in the release that there was nothing in the settlement requiring the county executive to sign the legislation, only that he must "promote" it. It said the county also believed the requirement expired in 2009.

"To compel an elected official to sign legislation sight unseen and to give up his or her responsibility to vote his conscience goes against everything our country stands for," Astorino said. "We don't think the settlement says that, and that is one of the issues we are fighting in court."

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