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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 22, 2007

Trustco’s night-deposit safe stolen
The Hole-in-the-Wall gang in Guilderland"

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — A night-deposit safe was reported missing at 7 a.m. Tuesday from the Trustco Bank at 1475 Western Ave. in Stuyvesant Plaza, according to Guilderland Police.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Guilderland Police are currently investigating the safe’s disappearance, which was taken sometime Monday night, police say. The contents of the safe have not been disclosed.

Senior Investigator John Tashjian of the Guilderland Police said this week that Trustco Bank reported "there was a hole in the wall adjacent to the bank where the night deposit safe had been located."

Tashjian told The Enterprise Tuesday that the safe was removed from the wall and opened, and that at least some of its contents were removed, but he said it is unknown exactly how many deposits were taken out.

"They took the face plate off," Tashjian said about the safe’s removal. "We were called and we notified the FBI of the nature of the case."

Tashjian said the FBI has certain criteria for the cases it investigates and does not know if it will continue to pursue the case. He said for now, however, it is considered a "joint investigation."

The safe was located near the bank’s entrance and the hole where the safe used to be is now covered up by plywood.

"They weigh a few hundred pounds," Tashjian said of the deposit safes, indicating that at least two or more people helped remove it.

There are surveillance video cameras posted at the Trustco Bank, Tashjian said, but police are not yet revealing what they reviewed on the security tapes. Police are pursuing the case as a grand larceny offense, which is a felony.

Guilderland Police are asking anyone who may have seen something suspicious at the bank Monday evening, or have any information about the incident, to contact them at 356-1502.

Woman arrested for forgery

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — An Albany woman was arrested for stealing checks from another woman "who took her in" when she was down on her luck, according to Guilderland Police.

Ellen M. Branche, 40, of 98 Columbia St., Albany, tried to cash those checks at the First Niagara Bank on Western Avenue, police say, and was arrested on Jan. 24. She was charged with second-degree possession of a forged instrument, a felony, and fifth-degree criminal possession of stolen property and petit larceny, both misdemeanors.

Branche’s occupation is listed as a registered nurse on her arrest report, but Guilderland Police Officer Charles Tanner explained that Branche was not a caregiver for the victim. Tanner added, though, that caregiver theft is not that uncommon, especially when older victims are involved.

"She was an acquaintance of the victim’s friend," Tanner said about Branche. "She was down on her luck and the victim took her in out of the kindness of her heart."

Tanner describes Branche as a "guest in the house" of the victim, who also lives in Albany.

"She forged the victim’s check and went to a local bank and withdrew funds," Tanner said.

Branche turned herself over to Guilderland Police after using two stolen checks, which she made out to herself with the victim’s forged signature, to withdraw a total of $394 from the First Niagara Bank in the Towne Center Plaza on Western Avenue, according to the arrest report.

Branche was arraigned by Judge Denise Randall in Guilderland Town Court, the report says.

Board Oks cell antennas To penetrate Crossgates Mall

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — A unanimous decision by the town’s zoning board will allow Nextel Partners, Inc., to install more cellular telephone antennas on the Westmere water tank.

The tower is already home to three other cell-phone providers, and Nextel’s application for a special-use permit to install more will allow the company to "penetrate" area malls like Crossgates and the 20 Mall. The company’s representatives say recent customer complaints of little or no reception in such places is the reason for the new antennas.

Not everyone in town is happy about having more cell-phone coverage for the area.

Liesse Mohr, who lives near the water tower on Gipp Road, warned the zoning board about succumbing to business pressures driven by "consumer demand." She suggested that the town adopt a comprehensive town-wide plan to monitor and prevent saturation of cell-phone antennas that produce controversial radio-frequency radiation.

Mohr, who has facilitated town discussions in the past and founded the local chapter of Study Circles, said she believes the concentration of cell towers in one area could be a potential health risk and lead to possible property depreciation.

Chairman Peter Barber disagreed, saying that, if an applicant meets the Federal Communication Commission’s guideline, "It’s out of our hands."

"It’s not our role to step into these matters," Barber said. "If it meets the FCC guidelines"the law is the law. They are what they are."

Supervisor Kenneth Runion is backing up Barber’s assertion.

"I think everyone’s hands are tied because the FCC controls those issues," Runion told The Enterprise this week. "I haven’t really heard about the issue until recently. A number of studies have been conducted. The FCC has concluded that there is no health effect."

Mohr doesn’t see it that way. She said the zoning board would have the power to weigh in if the town adopted a comprehensive plan and monitored the levels of radio frequency emissions in specific areas.

Barber said that the FCC regulations mostly address workers’ health rather than residential health concerns.

"Most of these guidelines are for people working right up against them and are most at risk from exposure," he said of radio frequency guidelines for cell-phone antennas. "We did a worset-case scenario"It’s still less than 1-percent of the threshold."

Mohr, however, contended that Nextel’s calculations for low-frequency radio frequency exposure were only based on 30 minute exposure limits as opposed to 24-hour exposure.

Barber told Mohr that he did not want to "debate the science" of the findings.

The town-designated engineer, Delaware Engineering, sent Ken Johnson to the meeting to reiterate the chairman’s position.

"We reviewed the Nextel submission," Johnson told the zoning board. "It’s basically in conformance with the FCC’s radio frequency exposure guidelines."

Barber referred to the 1996 Telecommunications Act in claiming the issue was out of the zoning board’s jurisdiction. The Telecommunications Act was the first major overhaul in telecommunications law in nearly 62 years and was passed by Congress in order to "let anyone enter any telecommunications business and to let any communications business compete in any market against any other."

However, the act also prohibits "health issues" from being discussed in such zoning applications. Mohr said many of the Guilderland residents, some of whom are scientists, spoke out last October against the Verizon application for more antennas on the Fort Hunter water tower, near Pine Bush Elementary, but that they didn’t know health issues could not validly be discussed.

Last Wednesday’s zoning board meeting was not broadcast as usual on the public access channel, because of a cable malfunction, according to Tom Quaglieri of What’s Happening Productions. But tapes were available and it was re-broadcast later in the week.

Mohr called the timing of the malfunction "interesting."

Case law

"Going back to 1985, there has been no federally-funded research on the effects of the antennas and any of the energy that’s put out as far as radio frequency," Mohr told the board. "Although we can’t talk about health, there are parallel environmental and health concerns that can be used to get the same effect for health issues."

Mohr gave zoning board members an eight-page packet which cited case law in similar situations involving local boards and cell-phone antennas. The papers included studies gathered from a Connecticut conference on radio frequency and local laws as well as e-mail messages from a local scientist.

"We have the right to ask them, in pretty good detail, their need, and their need doesn’t mean they have to have more than 75-percent coverage or anything like that," Mohr said. "I was surprised at the lack of detail in their original application."

She then went on and asked Barber directly, "Do you feel, Peter, that Nextel gave enough information to you that you technically understand that their coverage gap was an issue""

Barber responded, "To the satisfaction of our town engineer, there’s a demonstrated gap. I’ve also noted anecdotally that people have complained about the lack of Nextel service in the Westmere corridor."

Mohr cited a 1999 case, Cellular Telephone Co. v. Zoning Board Adjustment, in which the court, over the vigorous objections of a carrier, held that it is permissible for a local zoning authority to consider "quality" of wireless service, up to a point. The court stated that providers bears the burden of proving a proposed facility is "the least obtrusive means" of filling gaps with a "reasonable level of service."

The court defined "gap," but not "significant gap."

Mohr also noted that the town code dealing with cell-phone towers was from a "previous administration" in 1997 and had not been updated.

"There’s nothing in that code that specifically states antennas have to go on water towers," Mohr said. "In fact, section D-2 it says no towers can be put in residential areas; it’s very specific.

"I would like to see the towers in local business zones, but some local business zones are right next to residential areas, so there are some problems, but there is nothing that says it has to be in residential areas."

The Connecticut conference papers also state that metal objects, like water tanks and roofs, are "conductive materials that can create localized hot spots."

Barber said the height of the water towers make them attractive to telecommunication businesses.

"Generally"in residential areas your universe of structures are relatively low," Barber said. "What we’re doing with this water tower is no different than what we do with Executive Park or any of the other ones."

Barber said the code "suggests" and "prefers" that antennas be placed in business zones, but does not specifically state they have to be placed in those zones.

The 1997 law specifically details cellular telephone tower setbacks, approval processes, documentation of intent, proof of need, long-range plans, and screening, but it does not deal with health regulations.


William West, the town’s Water and Wastewater supervisor, told The Enterprise that Nextel is paying about $2,300 a month for its antennas, which also include Sprint antennas because the two companies have merged. The other providers in town pay about half of that, depending on the time of their contracts because they are single companies, he said.

The roughly $100,000 a year goes directly into the water district’s budget as a revenue, West said.

Mohr told the board that it needs to be proactive and provide radio frequency mapping throughout town, because, without it, "We’re making it too easy for them." She also said that cell-phone providers should foot the bill for the study.

"Other people in the community sympathize with us, but they don’t have this in their backyard," Mohr said.

Mohr listed for the board several locations near radio-frequency emitting antennas, including: her home, 475 feet from the Westmere tower; the Pine Bush Elementary School, 500 feet from the Fort Hunter tower; a neighbor, 350 feet from the Westmere water tower; a zoning board member, 1,300 feet from the Westmere tower; and a town board member, 1,100 from Stuyvesant Plaza.

"You’re limiting my ability to sell my house," Mohr told the board about the close proximity of a water tower with four cell-phone provider’s antennas. She said she did not feel "ethically comfortable" selling her house to a family with a lot of kids.

"The RF mapping would alleviate a lot of these concerns," she said.

Barber thanked Mohr for work on the matter before he called for a vote on Nextel’s special-use permit.

"I would like to give special attention to all of the time and hard work Liesse Mohr put into researching this"I think she deserves credit," Barber said, as he thanked her for this particular case as well the others she has worked on in the past.

However, Barber said he could not deny the application.

"We are largely restricted on what we can review," he said. "If you meet the FCC regulations, then local boards cannot review further."

One board member did speak out before voting in favor of the application.

"There are residents in our town who may not hold with the assurances of the federal government ‘that all is well’ and would like to have some say," said board member Charles Klaer. "Some citizens have not been persuaded. It’s their personal feelings versus the government’s assurance."

Super resigns: Ward Humphrey avoids discipline

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — After months of closed-door talks, Ward Humphrey has resigned as superintendent of building and grounds for the Guilderland School District.

The school board unanimously accepted Humphrey’s resignation, without mention of it, at its last meeting, on Feb. 6. The resignation was one of a group of appointments and resignations voted on altogether as part of what the school board president calls "a consent agenda."

Humphrey had submitted his one-sentence letter of resignation on Jan. 19 as part of a settlement with the school district after being put on administrative leave in December.

Humphrey was hired for the job, a Civil Service position, on Jan. 15, 1991; his salary for the 2006-07 school year was $73,111.

"I just need to seek new professional opportunities and that’s what I’m doing," Humphrey told The Enterprise on Tuesday. "I had a career before the school district in facilities management."

Humphrey, who lives in Delanson, declined to comment on the reason for his being placed on administrative leave. Asked if he thought he was treated fairly by the district, he replied, "Yes."

He concluded, "There comes a point where you’ve done what you can do"Sometimes change is good for everybody. Life is full of challenges."

The Enterprise first learned in early December that Humphrey was placed on administrative leave after receiving calls and letters from district employees and residents, asking about Humphrey’s absence from work and speculating on reasons for it.

Through a series of Freedom of Information Law requests, denials, appeal, and further denial, The Enterprise was able to learn only that Humphrey was placed on administrative leave on Dec. 4, 2006 by Superintendent Gregory Aidala.

Asked why, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Susan Tangorre declined comment, saying only, "I try to be really fair to all employees."

Tangorre, who is also the district’s Freedom of Information officer, cited "personnel issues" as a reason for denying the Enterprise requests.

Robert J. Freeman, director of the state’s Committee on Open government told The Enterprise on Dec. 22 that the phrase "personnel issues" does not appear in the law and is not applicable.

This week, Freeman told The Enterprise that any agreement the school district had made with Humphrey would be considered a contract and, he said, "Contracts are always public."

The Enterprise obtained a copy of the six-page agreement yesterday through a Feb. 6 FOIL request.

The agreement

The agreement states that the superintendent of schools had advised Humphrey that he "is considering preferring disciplinary charges" against him pursuant to Section 75 of the New York State Civil Service Law; that section deals with removal and other disciplinary proceedings.

The agreement also says that Humphrey "denies any charges and any such charges could be vigorously defended" so Humphrey and the school district "discussed the matter and mutually agreed to resolve the matter without the need for a hearing or any other litigation."

They agreed that Humphrey would resign, effective Jan. 31, and that he would be on paid administrative leave until that date.

The agreement says further that the district will pay Humphrey $8,506.30 "for any and all accrued and unused vacation days." It also says the district will continue to provide his health insurance until June 30 unless he becomes employed before then at a new job that has health insurance. Humphrey, it says, will continue to pay $246.92 per month for his portion of health-insurance costs.

Also, Humphrey waives any grievance against the district and discharges the district "from all claims and liability," according to the agreement.

It also states, "While this release does not run from the School District to the Employee, the School District does represent that as of the execution of the Agreement it is has no actual knowledge of any impropriety, misconduct or malfeasance on which the Employee would have any liability to the School District or any other reason on which it would presently have any cause of action against the employee."

Humphrey was given 21 days to decided whether or not to sign the agreement and the agreement states that, if the school district were to receive a FOIL request, it would notify Humphrey in writing at least three business days prior to disclosure of the agreement.

Beloved school nurse offers Rx for everyday aches and pains

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — "Who can turn the world on with her smile"" played the theme song from the popular seventies sitcom. "Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile""

Mary Zwagerman outshone Mary Tyler Moore with her radiance as, grinning from ear to ear, she was escorted by pairs of students from each classroom down the center of the Guilderland Elementary School gym last Friday.

The children, hundreds of them, had assembled to pay tribute to their school nurse.

Before Zwagerman’s grand entrance, fourth-grade teacher Rory Davis, told the children, "Somebody at our school helps every one of us out...How many of you have been to Mrs. Zwagerman’s office""

Most of the kids raised their hands, some of them were waving wildly. Davis went on to prep the kids to participate in a poem he would recite. Pointing to his colorful Band-Aid-strewn necktie, he wanted them to chorus "ice packs and Band-Aids" whenever he pointed to his tie. The kids shouted the refrain with volume and glee.

As Zwagerman made her entrance, Davis said, "You help us out at our very worst times and yet you always have a smile on your face."

Davis went on to recite his poem, which included a description of the nurse’s repertoire with such creative couplets as, "A bucket to puke in when we’re feeling sick, a really cool tool to remove a tick."

Then pairs of children — a set from each classroom — presented Zwagerman with giant paper sunflowers. "You are our sunshine because...," said the center of each flower, while the surrounding yellow petals told of Zwagerman’s many virtues.

"Mrs. Kirk’s class says, ‘You are our sunshine because you are always there for us,’" said one student, presenting the flower.

"We hope you never retire," said an earnest little boy in glasses.

One by one, the flowers were placed in paper pots lining the stage.

A girl sitting next to Zwagerman offered her a tissue as she wept on hearing the heartfelt words — still smiling through her tears.

Then, pictures of Zwagerman, always with a smile, even as she administered an eye test, flashed on a screen as the kids sang along, "You are the sunshine of my life. We hope you’ll always be around."

"Your smile is infectious and so is your giving and caring," said Principal Dianne Walshhampton.

Wayne Bertrand, the district’s athletic and health director, proclaimed it was "a very special day for a very special person."

Zwagerman’s husband, Peter, clapped along with the kids, as did their daughter, Kaitlyn, a sophomore at Union College. Their son, Peter, a sophomore at Guilderland High School, was in class.

"She really just puts a lot of energy into whatever she does," said her husband afterwards. "She loves the kids. She was very touched by it all."

Finally, at the end of the assembly, Zwagerman, still smiling, spoke. "Thank you for making me feel so special and so loved," she said. "I love this school and I love my staff and I love all of you children who bring me so much love and joy."

Her words were greeted with a gym full of hoots and hollers and very loud clapping.

Exit Vlahos: Trustee cedes seat

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Christine Marshall and William Aylward will be the only two candidates running for the two available village board seats on March 20.

"Jim put together that team," said Trustee Harvey Vlahos of Mayor James Gaughan. According to long-time incumbent Aylward, Gaughan paired him with Marshall, who is new to politics, to run on the Concerned Citizens ticket together. "He let the both of us know that we might be approachable to each other," Marshall said.

Vlahos, who has often been at odds with the rest of the board, will not be on the ballot in March although his term will be up. But, he said this week, "There’s always the possibility of a write-in campaign."

A couple of things led to his decision not to seek re-election, Vlahos said; among them, the money. In the last village election, in 2005, when there were four candidates for mayor, including both Vlahos and Gaughan, three candidates spent under $1,000 on their campaigns while Gaughan spent over $7,000 on his. For this year’s uncontested trustee election, Marshall has raised $1,355 so far, according to her first financial statement filed at Village Hall. She hadn’t been expecting to run unopposed when she started collecting money, she said.

"That really is affecting the quality and character of the village," Vlahos said of the precedent Gaughan set for campaign spending and his use of a public-relations firm. "Why do you need that kind of money to run in a one-square-mile village with 1,700 people"" Vlahos asked.

Marshall, who is running with Aylward, is using the same firm that Gaughan used during his campaign for mayor two years ago, Communications Services.

The other contributing factor to his decision to give up his seat on the village board is the time that it takes, Vlahos said. Business at The Altamont Manor, which he operates, promises to pick up this year, he said, and the time it takes to research everything that comes before the board is demanding. Of the trustee post, he said, "It’s not for people who just want to march in parades"; there’s a lot of work that has to be done.

Often being the only dissenter on the board has been wearing, too, he said. "I think that the board really does need an independent person," he said, adding, "Or four, to be perfectly blunt."

Vlahos was the sole dissenter when the board adopted a lengthy operating manual for the police department; he pointed out that the manual was more appropriate for a larger department than Altamont has. Most recently, he was the only board member to push for endorsing a precinct-counted paper ballot optical scan voting machine as the machine that Albany County should choose in order to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.

The deadline for submitting a petition to run for trustee in the March 20 election has passed, but Vlahos said that he is considering a write-in campaign. "It’s not pie in the sky," he said. "It is very doable."

McMillen named manager of the Altamont Fair

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — After years without, the fair has brought back the manager’s position, although this time it has different duties.

Long-time fair volunteer Marie McMillen will be taking on those duties, a step up from her former position as the fair board’s vice president. She’ll be focusing on sales for the fair, rather than overseeing all aspects of the fair, which was the role of managers in the past, she said.

The fair has always been part of McMillen’s life. Her mother used to show cows at the Altamont Fair and McMillen was in 4-H as a child, she said, then her own children got involved, too.

"I would like to see the fair do more country-fair kinds of things," she said. The events that go on during fair week will largely be outside of her purview, though. Each section of the fair has its own committee that decides what things that will be happening, like the performers who will be invited and the judges who will be asked. McMillen will be focusing on the business end of things.

In her previous position at the fair, she made a big effort to make the fairgrounds available for events outside of the fair, like company picnics and music festivals. The two big events from last year will be coming back again in 2007; she said that both Countryfest and Summerfest will be renting the fairgrounds this coming summer.

The fair board decided that it would be good to have someone in the office on a regular basis, which is one of the reasons that it decided to reinstate the manager’s position, as paid rather than volunteer. The two major parts of McMillen’s job as manager will be to spend time in the office — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this time of the year and more often over the summer — and to book outside events, she said.

There were some hard years for the fair, McMillen said, but 2006 was the best one in the last 10 years financially, a success owed largely to outside events, she said.

She’s happy with her new post as manager, she said. "My heart is really in the fair."

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