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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 20, 2007


With three lawyers on board
Does town need to hire an attorney"

By Holly Grosch

NEW SCOTLAND — Come Jan. 1, three members of the New Scotland Town Board will be lawyers, leading one resident to suggest the board could save money by not hiring a town attorney.

Lawyers are frequently elected to local governing boards. Kenneth Runion Guilderland’s town supervisor, is an attorney, as is Theresa Egan, who recently resigned as Bethlehem’s supervisor to take a state post. Thomas Dolin, New Scotland’s supervisor-elect, is a lawyer, too, and, like Egan, had served as a town judge before being elected supervisor.

Meanwhile, two town board members in New Scotland, Margaret Neri and Richard Reilly, practice law for their day jobs. The town of Guilderland had another attorney elected to office this November, Warren Redlich. And three members of Guilderland’s school board, including its president, are lawyers.

How does the preponderance of lawyers affect local government" New Scotland resident Kurt Anderson, at last Wednesday’s New Scotland Town Board meeting, proposed doing away with the position of town attorney, saving taxpayers’ money. The town’s 2008 spending plan budgets $20,900 in salary for New Scotland’s attorney, L. Michael Mackey.

"Here’s an opportunity," Anderson said, "Board members can do a little extra."

Anderson went on to cite what he called the resounding message of the fall election campaigns: "Those of you have indicated that you want to give back," he said.

Some things are done the same way for a long time just because it’s the way things have always been done, Anderson said, but there is often a need for review and change.

"[The board] will have more than an adequate understanding of the law to not need a town attorney," he said.

Dolin had served as Westerlo’s town attorney in years past and as an attorney for New Scotland and for the village of Voorheesville’s planning and zoning boards.

From attending town meetings, Anderson says, he has seen that one of Mackey’s largest job responsibilities is drafting resolutions and wording proposed laws. This is a task Anderson believes can be split among the elected officials with law backgrounds and be completed competently.

If the town were sued, or another issue arose that required special counsel, Anderson would support contracting out for law representation on a need-to-need basis.

Not appointing a town attorney next year comes out of the interest of being frugal, Anderson said. He added that his proposal was in no way a reflection on Mackey, or the job he has done.

The town attorney is a part-time post that is filled each year at the Jan. 1 re-organizational meeting.

"Our presumption is those offices are incompatible," said New York Department of State spokesman Eamon Moynihan of the town attorney post and members of the legislative branch. The town attorney needs to be unbiased to be able to offer an objective opinion, he said. "Sometimes a town attorney would be expected to give independent advice to the board," Moynihan told The Enterprise.

The question of the evolving role of attorney is still valid.

"I certainly intend to take advantage of my experience," Dolin told The Enterprise this week in response to the comments Anderson made at the public meeting. But Dolin said he doesn’t see reducing Mackey’s job responsibilities or workload to the point of reducing his salary.

The "salary at the present rate is pretty minimum, modest," Dolin said. "Reducing that any further would be a detriment to the town.

"While I won’t have to rely on the town attorney for day-to-day operation as much as a lay person" Dolin said, "residents should have the benefit of an unelected person with a broad attachment," he said in support of the State Department’s view.

"I’ll have quite a bit to do just being supervisor, acting as CEO, the executive in charge of a day-to-day administration and as the chief financial officer of about two million dollars, sitting as a member of town board...It’s three jobs rolled into one title," Dolin said. "The idea of taking on the additional [task] of town attorney is not realistic."

It would be as if a civil engineer were elected town supervisor; he would not expect the town officials to eliminate the town engineer position, Dolin said.

In the coming years, Dolin said, he sees an extended need for a town attorney rather than a diminishing one since his goals as supervisor include zoning changes and water districts. "We need the input and advice of a town attorney," he said.

Sinister"

Dolin said when he heard Anderson’s appeal at the town board meeting, he wasn’t sure if Anderson was serious and, at first, thought perhaps it was a joke. His inclination was that it was an "extension of the political criticism" he felt during the campaign from the Republicans, he said, "as if being an attorney was somehow a detriment." Dolin had not at first interpreted Anderson’s proposition to be a genuine call for a review of local government functions but thought it was a continuation of a "sinister" campaign tactic.

Dolin said he has, however, thought about it recently as well: how attorneys have always been attracted to political office at high levels of government but now more attorneys are taking on elected positions at local government levels.

"I don’t know how long it will continue," Dolin said of the trend. Attorneys are in one of the few professions "that are able to make the sacrifice it takes to serve," he offered as a reason. All the volunteer or quasi-volunteer community boards are in desperate need of volunteers, he went on. Lawyers are economically stable so that they are able to sacrifice time at work to spend time working for a town and "suffer the reduced income" as a result. Also, many lawyers are self-employed so they are able to build their own schedules.

"Republicans make it sound sinister," or like some type of "conspiracy" that there will be three lawyers on the board, Dolin said, but he thinks it’s just a matter of attorneys having the leisure or freedom to take the time away from their professions to give back.

Laws to protect water

New state-required laws in town will give guidelines to developers so that erosion is curtailed and water is protected.

New Scotland held a hearing last Wednesday for two local laws — "Erosion and Sediment Erosion Law of the Town of New Scotland" and "Prohibition of Illicit Discharges, Activities and Connections to Separate Storm Sewer Systems."

Adopting laws that deal with both of these issues is a requirement set by the state, which received orders from Department of Environmental Conservation to implement and enforce. Keith Menia and R. Mark Dempf, town engineers, said that the DEC adopted a general permit and then passed responsibility down to the state, which then passed the buck down to town governments.

"New Scotland will be fined each and every day" it doesn’t have a law enacted, starting on January 1st," Menia said.

After the town board heard public comment on the proposed local laws, it unanimously resolved to pass the law as-is because of time pressure; this was despite having just received some suggestions from the public. Reilly noted that the board will still consider community members’ reviews and comments and make revisions and amendments to the law as needed with a goal of having the final copy of the law on the books by March of 2008.

Dempf said that the town of New Scotland would not be receiving any direct money to help pay for the cost of creating, implementing, and enforcing the law but rather state aid will be allocated to county-level agencies, which will then provide training to town employees.

Mackey said the core of New Scotland’s law is the template which was written and provided by the DEC. A New Scotland resident asked how much it was customized.

"Anything we change can come back to haunt us," Menia said, meaning the DEC would come back at New Scotland and impose fines.

Town officials said that only minor changes were made to the template, one example being that the template had been written for larger towns, which have additional departments or more employees with more varying job titles than New Scotland, so there was some re-wording to do in that respect. Changes were also made to make the law fit with New Scotland’s zoning code.

Ultimately, Menia said, the law is designed as a guideline to developers and gives the town authority to enforce. The intention is to protect the water supply and erosion goes hand-in-hand with that, he said. Even if there are no waterways or streams directly on or near a person’s property, ultimately the water leads to somewhere, he said.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Authorized the superintendent to contract with Dente Engineering to monitor the section of Krumkill Road that has been on sliding slope since flooding in April and only has a clay support system. "There is no imminent danger," Dempf said, but the situation should be monitored over the next six months to determine what to do next;

— Learned from Highway Superintendent Darrell Duncan that the town will need to spend $18,000 to resurface the road in Swift Estates. In the mid-1990’s the Swift Estates developers put into escrow, at the town’s request, money for paving, to cover the cost of putting down a permanent top coat. The idea at the time was that the town didn’t want the developer to put the top coat on the road right away because there were still more houses to go in and construction vehicles would be tearing up the road.

The $40,000 are still in escrow, Mackey said, and now, in 2008, the road will be paved by the town with an additional cost of $18,000. While it appears that the town is now paying for something a developer typically would have, Menia said in reality the road at this point would need resurfacing even if the developers had finished all the coats back in 1990s;

— Voiced opposition to Supervisor Ed Clark’s proposal to abolish Blue Shield as a health-insurance carrier for town employees.

The town currently offers its employees an option of either Blue Shield or Capital District Physicians Health Plan. There is only one staff member who is covered under Blue Shield, Clark said, and eliminating that option would save the town $1,400 plus the additional savings in administrative overhead costs such as in the time the supervisor’s office staff spends completing paper work for both plans. Councilwoman Deborah Baron said she could not vote in favor of this because she would like to give an employee more notice. An employee would have had to join into CDPHP on Jan. 1. Baron also said she would need more information clearly proving that CDPH offers the same coverage that the one employee currently has under his Blue Shield Insurance. Clark responded that the doctors are the same.

The one employee this change would affect was at the town board meeting and said, "I would like more time to put my stuff in order...If I’m forced to change, I’m forced to change," he said. At the benefits fair that was held in the fall, Blue Shield was represented, he said, so he thought he was all set for next year’s coverage. He feels as though he would lose some benefits with the switch and he is just more comfortable and familiar with his existing plan, he said;

— Heard a complaint from a vendor, from Ramsko, who thought his bid on water meters was overlooked and asked for an opportunity to review with town officials the system he has to offer. He would have liked an opportunity to prove the system he offered is competitive, he said. When he went to the bid opening, there was no discussion at that time, he said, and he called Town Hall three times after that to request an audience and was told that it was not necessary. Then, the bid that was accepted by the town board at Wednesday’s meeting was for about $26,000. There were two lower bids: Ramsko’s was $6,000 and another company’s bid was for $14,000, he said. "What was the basis for taking the higher bid"" he asked. Menia said the total cost of the project was considered, the water meters’ compatibility with other systems and brands, the hardware, and the best overall investment for the town.

The Ramsko representative indicated that he hadn’t realized the town’s requirement was for the meters to be compatible with certain brands. Duncan said that not all the vendors put everything the town had asked for in their package price. Dempf said his view is he’ll listen and consider "if someone thinks something was done erroneously."

It looks like the staff did due diligence, Reilly said, but, with the support of all parties involved, Reilly made a motion to rescind the resolution that accepted a particular water meter bid just moments ago and all of the town board members voted in favor; and

— Recognized Ed Clark for his six years as town supervisor and 17 years as the mayor of Voorheesville. At the end of the meeting, in response to the last agenda item, councilpersons Neri and Reilly directed Councilman Douglas LaGrange, a Republican like Clark, to read the proclamation honoring Clark into the official minutes. The last sentence in summarization was, "The town board of the town of New Scotland calls upon Mr. Clark’s family, friends and neighbors to join us in recognizing his outstanding talent and character with this statement of sincere appreciation for Mr. Clark’s wise counsel over these six years and in celebrating his achievements on their behalf."


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