Members of the Niagara County Legislature managed to create history and stir controversy in their first meeting of the new year Tuesday night.
The legislature opened its annual organizational meeting by electing the body's first-ever female chair, unanimously tapping Legislator Rebecca Wydysh, R-Sanborn.
"I thank all the strong women who came before me and paved the way for me to be here tonight," Wydysh said. "I'm proud to be the first because I know I won't be the last."
But shortly after electing Wydysh, the legislature, on a straight party-line vote, appointed Nicholas Robinson, North Tonawanda assistant city attorney, to lead the county public defender's office. Robinson, who has been admitted to practice law for five years, replaces longtime chief public defender David Farrugia, who retired from the post.
Nine members of the Republican-led caucus voted to approve Robinson's appointment. All five Democrats opposed it.
"There was no process to this (appointment)," Minority Caucus Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said. "There were no interviews, no notices (of a vacancy). I think we're getting into a bad habit here."
Virtuoso noted that, in addition to his work for North Tonawanda, Robinson has served as an assistant public defender for just two and a half years. Farrugia,who he'll replace, had been the chief PD for 18 years.
"I just think if we had looked around, we might have found someone more experienced," Virtuoso said.
Virtuoso also pointed out that the office, which serves an overwhelmingly minority client base, has never been led by a minority and currently has no minority lawyers on staff.
After the vote, Wydysh admitted that she was unaware of any effort to recruit candidates for the job.
"We know him (Robinson)," she said. "He submitted a letter of interest when he heard of (Farrugia's retirement)."
A cover letter and resume that Robinson submitted to the prior Legislature chair, Keith McNall, contained no date of transmission. Wydysh said she believed it was "common knowledge" that Farrugia was retiring, but also said she was not aware that there had been any formal posting of the opening.
"I think it's something we should take a look at," she said. "I would like to take a look at these positions being posted."
Wydysh defended the appointment, saying Robinson had been "highly recommended" for the position by other attorneys.