Opinion 92-13


This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.


LOCAL LAWS -- Procedural Requirements (necessity to address only a single subject) -- Terms of Office (single local law may increase terms of several elective town offices)
PUBLIC OFFICERS AND EMPLOYEES -- Terms of Office (change in terms of town offices from two to four years)

MUNICIPAL HOME RULE LAW, §§10(1)(ii)(a)(1),(d)(3), 20(3); TOWN LAW, §§24, 24-a: A single local law increasing the terms of office of town councilmen, the town clerk and the town supervisor from two to four years does not violate the "single subject" requirement of Municipal Home Rule Law, §20(3).

You ask whether a town in a county not having a board of supervisors may, by the adoption of a single local law, increase the terms of office of the town supervisor, town councilmen and town clerk to four years.

Town Law, §24 provides generally for two year terms of office for the town supervisor, town councilmen and town clerk. Towns which are not in counties having boards of supervisors may increase the terms of office of these officers to four years either by resolution subject to mandatory referendum (Town Law, §24-a) or by local law subject to mandatory referendum (Municipal Home Rule Law, §§10[1][ii][a][1], [d][3], 23[2][e]; see also 1985 Opns St Comp No. 85-21, p 27, discussing whether a local law increasing the term of an elective office, which is approved at a general election may be made applicable to a town officer who is elected at that general election). Towns in a county having a board of supervisors, however, may increase terms of office of the town supervisor only by resolution subject to mandatory referendum pursuant to Town Law, §24-a (Municipal Home Rule Law, §10[1][ii][a][1]; Opn No. 85-21, supra; 1982 Opns St Comp No. 82-18, p 23).

In this instance, the town is not within a county having a board of supervisors. Therefore, it may increase the terms of office of town councilmen, the town clerk and the town supervisor to four years by the adoption of either a resolution or local law. In either case, however, the enactment would be subject to mandatory referendum.

If the town chooses to act by local law, Municipal Home Rule Law, §20(3) must be complied with. Municipal Home Rule Law, §20(3) provides that "[e]very ... local law shall embrace only one subject. The title shall briefly refer to the subject matter." Similar provisions, applicable to private or local bills which may be passed by the State Legislature, are contained in article III, §15 of the State Constitution (cf., gen., 15 McQuillin, §40.09, discussing the general rule against the joining of one subject to others for purposes of obtaining voter approval).

The leading interpretation of language, such as that contained in Municipal Home Rule Law, §20(3), was in the Court of Appeals decision of Burke v Kern, 287 NY 203. The Court stated as follows at p 213:

The purpose of this provision was to prevent concealment and surprise to the members of the Legislature and to the public at large, and to prevent legislative 'logrolling'... In applying the constitutional provisions, the courts have formulated various tests chief among which has been a limitation of the subject-matter to one subject, which however, may embrace the carrying out of that subject-matter in various ways, provided the objectives are naturally connected with the subject matter and the title could be said to apprise the reader of what may reasonably be expected to be found in the statute.

Applying this test, the Court upheld an amendment to the New York City Charter, enacted in a single local law pursuant to the City Home Rule Law, a predecessor of the Municipal Home Rule Law which contained a similar "single subject" requirement. The local law so upheld abolished the offices of sheriff and register of the counties within the City of New York and created offices of city sheriff and register. The Court determined that the subject matter of the local law was "county reorganization" which was carried out in detail by the abolition of the various county offices involved and creation of new city offices.

Similarly, in Woll v Erie County Legislature, 83 AD2d 792, 440 NYS2d 146, affd 53 NY2d 1030, 442 NYS2d 498, a local law was upheld, which established a reapportionment plan for the county legislature and, at the same time, reduced the number of legislative seats. The Appellate Division applied as a test for determining whether the local law violated the single subject rule, "whether there is a necessary or natural connection between the items covered in the local law". Using similar reasoning, the courts have also upheld local laws which fixed minimum salary schedules for separate city departments (Petition of Mitrione, 14 AD2d 716, 219 NYS2d 866) and provided both for apportionment of a county legislative body and for the filling of vacancies in the apportioned legislative body (Rebeor v Wilcox, 58 AD2d 186, 396 NYS2d 536 affd 44 NY2d 279, 405 NYS2d 625.

Applying the above-stated principles to the situation presented in your inquiry, we conclude that the town, by the adoption of a single local law subject to mandatory referendum, may increase the terms of office of town councilmen, the town clerk and the town supervisor to four years. We believe such a local law embraces "one subject" within the meaning of Municipal Home Rule Law, §20(3); that is, an increase of the terms of office of town officers. Even if the local law were to carry out that subject in discrete ways, such as by establishing different terms of office for each of the officers, we believe the various objectives are naturally connected, with the single subject being the increase in the terms of town offices.

As noted, section 20(3) also requires that the title to the local law shall "briefly refer to the subject matter". This requirement has been interpreted to mean that the title must apprise the reader of what may reasonably be expected to be found in such law (Burke v Kern, supra). Accordingly, the town also should ensure that the title to the local law is adequate to meet this test.

Finally, we note that, if the town chooses to act by resolution pursuant to Town Law, §24-a rather than by local law, it is our opinion that a single resolution subject to mandatory referendum may be adopted. Town Law, §24-a specifically authorizes a town board to "adopt a resolution to provide that the term of office of each and any elective town official thereafter elected shall be four years, and such resolution shall be submitted to the qualified electors ... (emphasis added)" in accordance with the procedures set forth in article seven of the Town Law. Accordingly, by its express terms, section 24-a authorizes the board to increase the terms of office of town councilmen, the town clerk and the town supervisor to four years by the adoption of a single resolution subject to mandatory referendum.

May 4, 1992
Thomas D. Mahar, Jr., Esq., Town Attorney
Town of Poughkeepsie