The village’s short-lived bid to appeal its voting rights case — undertaken despite a taxpayer outcry — has added $75,000 in legal bills to the million-dollar cost of fighting the Justice Department’s 2006 lawsuit. The village also owes $125,000 in legal expenses for plaintiff Cesar Ruiz and an undetermined amount for his legal expenses during the appellate phase.
A divided village Board of Trustees hired the law firm Jones Day in February to appeal the 2008 decision that deemed Port Chester’s former trustee election system in violation of the Voting Rights Act. A judge had found the old system — at-large voting for two trustees per year — prevented the Hispanic minority from electing their preferred candidates to the board.
The decision to appeal came after Port Chester adopted its new method, cumulative voting, under an agreement with the Justice Department. A federal judge warned in April that the village had no right to appeal its own agreement, and in August, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed.
“It was stupid to do,” said Mayor Dennis Pilla, who opposed the appeal. “I could have paved six streets with the magnitude of the numbers you’re talking about for the appeal.”
Opposition also came from Trustee Luis Marino, who became the first Hispanic elected to the board in June 2010, and from members of the public. But the board majority opted to hire Jones Day attorney Michael Carvin, a prominent appellate lawyer and former Justice Department official. He is a Port Chester native and the brother of Joseph Carvin, supervisor of the enveloping Town of Rye.
“That’s the system,” said Sam Terenzi, a Port Chester trustee and outside accountant for Rye Town. “It’s unfortunate that the ruling didn’t come our way, but I’m certainly not going to look back. I’ve got to look forward.”
About $1.1 million has been paid to the Rye law firm Piscionere & Nemarow since the Justice Department threatened a lawsuit in 2006, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Law. That includes payments for outside experts and advisers. An additional bill in the “low thousands” has been submitted by Jones Day, according to the village. Carvin’s fee was $742.50 an hour, while others at Jones Day worked for lower rates. The board had authorized up to $225,000 for the appeal.