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Amato v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Essex

Decided: April 23, 1990.

NICHOLAS R. AMATO, ESSEX COUNTY EXECUTIVE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS OF THE COUNTY OF ESSEX AND BARRY SKOKOWSKI, SR., DIRECTOR OF THE DIVISION OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT SERVICES IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND HUDSON COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, INTERVENOR



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.

O'Brien, Havey and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Havey, J.A.D. Stern, J.A.D., concurring.

Havey

[240 NJSuper Page 314] Plaintiff Nicholas R. Amato, Essex County Executive, appeals from a judgment entered in the Law Division dismissing his declaratory judgment action against defendants Essex County Board of Freeholders (Board) and Barry Skokowski, Sr., Director of the Division of Local Government Services, Department of the Treasury (Director). The gravamen of plaintiff's complaint is that the Board was without authority to amend the 1989 county budget submitted by plaintiff without his "concurrence." In dismissing plaintiff's complaint, the trial judge concluded that the Board has the exclusive legislative power to adopt and amend county budgets pursuant to the Local Budget

Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:4-1 et seq. (Budget Law). We agree and now affirm.

The facts are not in dispute. Essex County is governed by the county executive plan of government pursuant to the Optional County Charter Law, N.J.S.A. 40:41A-31 et seq. (Charter Law). Plaintiff has been the Essex County Executive since January 1, 1987.

On or about March 30, 1989, plaintiff submitted to the Board the county's 1989 operating and capital budget. Upon the Board introducing the proposed budget for public hearings, various Board members announced their intention to amend it without referring the proposed amendments back to the county executive for his consideration and approval. Plaintiff responded by filing the present action by verified complaint, seeking a judgment declaring that the Board was limited to either approving or disapproving the 1989 budget as submitted by plaintiff, and that the Board is without authority to modify or amend the budget without his "approval and concurrence[.]"*fn1 Plaintiff also sought to enjoin the Board from adopting any budget that has "not been approved" by him, and the Director from certifying the amended budget pursuant to the Budget Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:4-1 et seq.

Plaintiff's argument in the Law Division, repeated on appeal, was that the Budget Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:4-4 and -9b, provides that budgets shall be adopted and amended by the "governing body." Plaintiff then pointed to the Charter Law, N.J.S.A. 40:41A-32b, which provides in part:

In each county operating under this article, the term "governing body" of the county shall be construed to include both the board of freeholders and the county executive. [Emphasis added].

He therefore reasoned that, since he was a member of the "governing body," the Board could not adopt an amendment to the budget without his "concurrence."

In dismissing plaintiff's complaint, the trial court concluded that notwithstanding the Charter Law's definition of "governing body," under other specific provisions of the Charter Law the county executive has only administrative and executive powers, which do not include control over the budget process. That process is governed by the specific provisions of the Budget Law, which defines "governing body" to mean the board of chosen freeholders. N.J.S.A. 40A:4-2. Thus, amendments to and adoption of the budget is the exclusive legislative function of the Board. We agree.

Plaintiff's assertion that he has "[concurring]" power over budget amendments is predicated on a perceived conflict between the definitions of "governing body" found in the Charter Law and Budget Law. Plaintiff acknowledges that the Budget Law defines "governing body" to mean the board of chosen freeholders, but argues that this definition must give way to the definition of "governing body" under section -32b of the Charter Law, which was added to the law in 1978. See L.1978, c. 141, ยง 1. This is so, plaintiff asserts, because a Charter Law county is governed by the terms of the plan adopted, by provisions of the Charter Law and by all general laws that are "not inconsistent with this act[.]" N.J.S.A. 40:41A-25, -26. He reasons that because the Budget Law's definition of "governing body" is "inconsistent" with the definition found in the Charter Law, the latter must prevail.

It is true that there appears facially an apparent conflict between the Charter Law and the Budget Law in their respective definitions of "governing body." It is also true that if the Budget Law is a "general law" and a conflict exists, the definition under section -32b must prevail. However, reading

each statute in the context of its respective purpose and legislative scheme, they ...


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