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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 21, 2008
Csaposs politicking on taxpayers’ time"
By Saranac Hale Spencer
GUILDERLAND Republicans are calling for the District Attorneys Public Integrity Unit to investigate Town Hall.
Citing taxpayer fraud, Ted Danz, the newly-elected Republican committee chair, submitted a request for an investigation to the Albany County District Attorney’s office. In support of his request, Danz included a copy of Director of Economic Development Don Csaposs’s time sheet for the month of October, which demonstrates that Csaposs had claimed work hours when he had been posting political comments on a local blog, Danz says. The Republican chair also included printed-out web pages, with time stamps, of comments posted by "haddanuffathiscrap" and "factsdontlieliarslie" and articles identifying Csaposs as the man behind those names.
Csaposs, a Democrat, was active in the fall elections, writing strident letters to the Enterprise editor and blog posts, critical of the Republicans who ultimately won two town-board seats.
"A complaint has been filed against me that is essentially criminal in nature," Csaposs read from a prepared statement yesterday, having been asked about his reaction the night before. He had consulted with a libel lawyer who advised him not to comment further, he said.
"I’m going to let the Public Integrity Unit of the District Attorney’s office do whatever they deem appropriate with it," he concluded.
The Public Integrity Unit, begun by District Attorney David Soares in 2005, gets several tips a week, largely through a hotline, said spokesperson Heather Orth. The office, which consists of two assistant district attorneys and an investigator, then looks at each case and determines which of three directions to proceed in, she said. They will decide that there isnt enough merit to move forward, ask for further information, or start an investigation based on what has come in, Orth said.
"We are very careful, because anyone can make a claim about anything," she said, adding that the politicians often named in the tips rely on their reputations. "They are treated very carefully," she said, which also means that there isn’t a typical time frame for an investigation each situation varies.
"It takes as long as it takes," Bruce Lennard, an assistant district attorney in the office, said of how long an investigation might take. "There’s no cookie cutter," he said.
"We will be conducting our own investigation," Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion said yesterday. He estimated that it could take a week or two and will likely consist of the town’s attorney, Richard Sherwood, talking to Csaposs, gathering statements from witnesses, and talking to the blog host; it will probably be similar to the town’s investigation following complaints about the former police chief who stepped down last spring as a result of the allegations.
Runion’s authority to order an internal investigation comes from Section 52 of the state’s Town Law, which says that a supervisor can "bring removal charges against the appointive head or deputy head of any department of town government for hearing and determination by the town board," the Democratic supervisor said. He’s asked Sherwood, who makes an annual salary of $44,767 for his part-time work with the town, to look into the matter and said, "He’s as troubled as I am," by the lack of information they have.
"It’s like asking the fox to watch the chicken coop," Danz said of the town’s internal investigation. Runion is a Democrat, as is the town-board majority.
Csaposs was involved with the Democrats’ campaigns last fall, and the blog posts that Danz says were made during work hours were part of a back-and-forth between Csaposs and Republican Councilman Warren Redlich, who was running for town board. "He was the spokesman for the Democrats," Danz said. Of the incumbents, who were ousted by Republican challengers, Danz said, "They didn’t throw spears they defended themselves." He added of Csaposs, "His venomous stuff kept coming out" He threw spears."
The town’s Republican committee discussed bringing a complaint to the district attorney’s office a couple of weeks ago, Danz said. "It wasn’t an easy decision, at first," he said. "The more I thought about it, the more I felt justified."
He felt justified because of the campaign tactics used last fall, he said, and because it is a waste of tax dollars to have an employee, who is paid by the town, using work time for political activities.
"I would like to see changes made in the way supervision is done" This falls back to Mr. Runion," Danz said of what he hopes the outcome of the investigation will be. On Csaposs’s October time card, Runion had signed in the "department head signature" space, which means that he approved of the hours claimed, Danz said.
"I can’t tell you what people are doing here every second of the day," said Runion, who says he signs about 50 time cards each month. The time sheets function more as an attendance record, he said, and, since he can’t monitor what everyone is doing throughout the day, he said, "Employees are taken at their word."
Also, over the course of a seven-hour workday, each employee gets two 15-minute breaks and an hour for lunch, Runion said, to which Danz answered through the Enterprise, "Did he use a town computer""
"We do have policies on various types of electronic transmissions," Runion said, referring to the town’s e-mail-use policy. About a year ago, the town suspended an employee for a day, without pay, due to personal e-mails sent from a town computer, he said; he wouldn’t reveal the name because of a union contract, Runion said. Of possible consequences from the town’s investigation, Runion said that the range includes a warning memo, a reprimand, suspension without pay, and dismissal.
"We take everything here seriously," he said.
"There’s an employee relationship, there’s a political relationship, and, as far as I know, there’s a personal relationship," Danz said of Runion and Csaposs.
Hired in 2001, Csaposs makes $55,149 as a full-time employee; much of his work consists of identifying and writing grants for the town.
"I’m not asking for him to lose his job," said Danz yesterday.
Earlier in the week, Csaposs said that he had given up his screen names. "I have a new policy," he said, naming his new blogging title Donald. "That is my sole blog identity from now and forever forth."
Yesterday, after reading from his statement, he said, "It’s time for the garbage to stop period. I have a job to do and I would like to have the time to do it."
Citizen attempts to get directory info on students from school district
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The superintendent will ask the school board at its Feb. 26 meeting to enact a moratorium on the release of student directory information.
This is to allow the board a chance to evaluate its current policies, John McGuire told The Enterprise yesterday.
"In looking at our policy language...I think we’d do well to ask for a policy review," McGuire told the board at its Feb. 5 meeting.
He referenced the Jan. 31 Enterprise article, "Use of GCSD directory legal""
For the last two school-board elections, the district released to the teachers union a list of addresses to students homes; the union used the list to mail cards in support of candidates and the budget.
Timothy Burke, a vocal school-district resident who has served on the citizens budget advisory committee, wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, saying he had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the district to obtain the same directory information the union had.
He doesnt plan to use the information, he told The Enterprise; he just wants to make a point. "I just want them to say, ‘Hey, we made a mistake and we need to close this,’" said Burke. "We’ve got to fix this."
Burke writes that McGuire "informed me he was not going to honor my request."
"That’s not true," McGuire told The Enterprise yesterday. "We will respond to the FOIL request through the usual procedures."
School board President Richard Weisz could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The Enterpise asked McGuire if, as Burke claimed, the school board was planning to enact the moratorium before his FOIL request is answered. McGuire said he couldn’t speak for the school board. He went on, "I am recommending to the school board that they adopt a moratorium on the release of information so they have time to work on a policy."
Concerns were initially raised by board member Peter Golden that releasing the directory information was illegal either in violation of state law that prohibits school districts from campaigning or in violation of a federal act that protects students privacy.
Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said last week that he can’t comment on whether Guilderland’s actions were permissible under state law since, he said, "The commissioner may be called upon to render a legally-binding decision if an appeal on this matter is brought before him."
Burman did, however, cite examples from School Law, a book published by the New York State School Boards Association and the New York State Bar Association.
"In general," School Law states, "...school officials can neither actively encourage nor tacitly permit anyone else to use district facilities or channels of communication to engage in promotional activities."
Quoting from a 2002 appeal by Maliha, it goes on to say that school boards are "ultimately accountable for how district facilities and resources are used and must avoid even the appearance of impermissible partisan activity."
McGuire, who just became superintendent this fall, told the board at its Feb. 5 meeting that the school attorney said, "We were in compliance with the law."
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requires schools to have written permission from a parent or eligible student, age 18 or older, to release any information from a students record, but schools may disclose directory information, such as a students name, address, or telephone number as long as parents and eligible students are told and allowed a reasonable amount of time to request the school not disclose their directory information.
McGuire told The Enterprise earlier that notice of FERPA is given to Guilderland parents and students each year in the school calendar.
"The way the policy stands now, can anybody request lists"" asked board member Denise Eisele.
"Once we declare we do share and notify, we are essentially not able to be selective unless we identify an extreme invasion of privacy," responded McGuire.
Golden said he’d like to hear what the board thinks, stating, "This is such an important issue with identity theft and predators."
"We have a system," said President Weisz, indicating the policy committee would handle the matter.
Board member Colleen O’Connell pointed out that the information released last spring "was not student information; it was the names and addresses of parents," she said.
Golden alluded to inconsistencies between current policies. One policy, adopted in 1995 and revised in 2001, lists "rosters and/or directories of pupils," which it defines as "lists of names of pupils by grades" as not available for public access.
"I happen to agree with that policy," said Golden.
The school district’s official stance, said Weisz, is that it did not violate policy. He chided Golden for "this constant drumbeat" that there had been a violation.
"Let’s adopt our policy to reflect what we want but let’s not do it under the guise that we’ve done something wrong," said Weisz.
In other business, the board:
Reviewed a school calendar for next year based on 185 days.
McGuire said that, for the first time, the BOCES were divided over the calendar. The QUESTAR and Capital Region Boards of Cooperative Educational Services will follow one calendar and the northern and western BOCES will follow a different one with a two-week winter break.
O’Connell raised an objection that she had raised before. "We’re a public school system, not a Christian school," she said. "I do not think we should follow Easter around like a puppy dog."
"I think we’re following BOCES around like a puppy dog," Weisz said.
McGuire said he would raise the issue during discussions for the following years calendar.
The board will vote on the 2008-09 calendar at its Feb. 26 meeting;
Accepted, with regret, resignations from two elementary-school principals who will be retiring in June Martha Beck from Pine Bush and Dianne Walshhampton from Guilderland Elementary;
Established non-resident tuition rates for the 2007-08 school year as set by the state. Kindergartners, in a half-day program, pay $4,052; students in first through sixth grade pay $7,547; and students in seventh through 12th grade pay $11,148;
Established the Micki Nevett Literature Scholarship to recognize a graduating senior who plans to continue his or her education, has demonstrated a love of literature, and had attended Westmere Elementary School.
Nevett, the long-time Westmere librarian, died of a heart attack in December;
Accepted 50 books from Roaring Brook Press, also in Nevetts honor, to be resold to start a Visiting Authors Fund at Westmere Elementary;
Appointed eight more members to the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee. The members review next years budget proposal and give their opinions in a half-dozen televised sessions, beginning Feb. 28.
New members are Garrett Bissell, Robert Lally, and Thea Reed.
Returning members are Timothy Burke, Rae Ellen Burke, Bernadette Hallam, Carolyn Kelly, and Baswa Shaker Shamshabad;
Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Nancy Andress that Farnsworth Middle School will once again hold a Wellness Day for students on March 27, with workshops on a wide variety of topics, ranging from leadership training to cybersafety;
Learned that five pieces from the Guilderland High School sculpture class were accepted in "Art in Three Dimensions." Alexia Haluska had two pieces accepted, and one each were accepted for Jarret Trudeau, Jennifer Ostroski, and Jessica Urban;
Learned that 75 students from Guilderland schools had work featured in The Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King 2008 Student Art and Essay Celebration held at Siena College. Their names are posted on the district website; and
Met in closed session to discuss a "personnel item" and contract negotiations with the principals unit.
New zoning for Altamont at last
By Zach Simeone
ALTAMONT Theres a new zoning law in the village, and it almost follows the comprehensive plan.
After two years of labor, and a storm of feedback from the community, the village board unanimously passed the law last Wednesday, replacing the 1971 zoning regulations.
"This is the culmination of well over two years worth of work by an extraordinary committee, made up of many members of the community, our staff, and professionals, chaired by our Trustee Dean Whalen," said Mayor James Gaughan at the top of the meeting.
Throughout the process, the board considered hundreds of letters from community members, along with multiple points of view expressed by residents during four months of public hearings that started in October of 2007.
The board has clashed with local landowners and businessmen along the way. And the board backed off strict requirements for a historic overlay district when villagers objected.
Carl Schillings parcel off of Schoharie Plank Road and the undeveloped Bozenkill property were denied the multi-family designation that the committee had recommended. John Donato has been trying for nearly a year to have his Altamont Lanes Bowling Center re-zoned as an apartment building, but it remains zoned for business.
Trustee William Aylward followed up on Mayor Gaughan’s introduction: "The last zoning ordinance served the village well. I was mayor when it was adopted, and it was 35 years ago," he noted. "If this goes 35 years, it will be 2043 when the next board and the next mayor will be thinking about revising the zoning ordinance."
"I would suggest that everybody go to the local Stewart’s and purchase a lottery ticket with the numbers 2-0-4-3," Mayor Gaughan joked in response to Aylward’s observation. "It sounds like a lucky number."
Before the vote, Village Attorney Michael Moore read into record the resolution for Local Law No. 1 of 2008, which restated that the village board had adopted a comprehensive plan, and had appointed a committee to develop zoning amendments as part of implementing that adopted comprehensive plan.
"This draft zoning law is designed to implement the long-term vision, goals, objectives and strategies to guide the orderly growth of the village, and to promote other purposes set forth in the law," read the resolution. "Implementation of these zoning amendments will positively assist Altamont in reaching goals of maintaining the environment, as outlined in the adopted Village of Altamont Comprehensive Plan," and will aid in maintaining the "historic aesthetic character" of the village.
Mayor Gaughan made a motion for the vote, seconded by Trustee Aylward, which led to a unanimous vote in favor of passing the new law.
"It’s a grand first leap for positioning ourselves for all these other things," Mayor Gaughan told The Enterprise of passing the new law. "This now creates a starting point for what was envisioned in the comprehensive plan, and I would like to highlight our renewed interest in our cultural and historic heritage. On a practical level, it is an update of a well-over 30-year-old plan that was way out of date not only in terms of vision, but in terms of building codes and recent changes in law.
"The thing that I’m particularly interested in is that it puts us in an excellent position to solicit grants and get funds. One part I’m particularly interested in is developing the pathways and sidewalks that connect parts of the village. In fact, we just got a $28,000 grant to look at pathways, and I’ll now be able to lay out a plan for that.
"I am a firm believer that, with this two years’ worth of work, we will be better able to get grant money. It will help us get grants for the Crounse House on the corner of Gun Club; we have some grand plans for that." Frederick Crounse, Altamont’s first doctor, built the Federal-style frame house over 150 years ago. Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion previously told The Enterprise of plans to use the property for community functions. The town and village purchased the property jointly by paying back taxes to Albany Country.
Following the vote, Mayor Gaughan said, "I think it’s appropriate to congratulate Trustee Whalen, who can now, in part, return to his normal life, we hope."
A week earlier, Trustee Whalen had cast a dissenting vote when his fellow board members decided to do away with the multi-family designation that his committee had proposed.
Trustee Whalen responded to Mayor Gaughan by saying that he had "forgotten what a normal life is," as the board shared a laugh. "It’s been a long road."
In other business, the board:
Authorized a reimbursement of retirement insurance for a local retiree for the remainder of the year.
A model activist: Sharma wins award
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Elijah Sharma wants to be a makeup artist with heart.
"When I grow up," he said, "I want to focus on youth and cosmetics and fashion as linked to animal welfare...It would be cool to push brands of makeup that have stopped animal testing and brands of clothing that have stopped using furs."
He is off to a good start.
Sharma, who helped found an animal-rights group at Guilderland High School, has won an Outstanding Activist Award from peta2. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals cited Sharma’s "successful efforts to have a dissection choice policy for students adopted at his school and for expanding the cafeteria’s menu to include vegan options."
He said of winning the award, "I was really happy about it because I respect the work PETA has done...We’ve used their resources and materials in our campaigns for three years now."
Sharma is co-president with Corrina Goutos of the Last Chance for Animals at Guilderland High School. Both Altamont residents, they were recently interviewed by the Humane Society of the United States; the interview is posted on the Humane Teen website, www.humaneteen.org/"q=node/633. The group has six million members, Sharma said.
Sharma has also gotten exposure on the peta2.com website as a "Star Street Teamer," with pictures and an interview posted. Peta2, a more radical group than the Humane Society, calls itself "the world’s largest youth animal rights organization."
"Each month, they focus on one of their activists," Sharma said. "Our group has gotten a lot of response. They linked our website. I’ve been getting a lot of contact from individual activists."
Sharma, 16, helped found Last Chance during his freshman year. He is now a junior. Next year, as a senior, he plans to start his career training in a vo-tech program and, after graduating from high school, he wants to go to beauty school.
Sharma is a vegan, which means he doesnt eat any meat or animal products like milk, eggs, or cheese.
"I’ve been raised to be kind and tolerant and respectful," he told The Enterprise last year for an article about the club. (See www.AltamontEnterprise.com, under "Archives" for March 29, 2007.)
The first club accomplishment Sharma named was getting vegetarian burgers on the menu at the school cafeteria. This year, he said, Last Chance is pushing to have soy milk and other vegan options added to the menu.
The group, which uses the name of a national organization but isnt governed by it, said Sharma, has circulated petitions for many animal-rights causes.
Its slogan is: "Improving the lives of animals and people through education, activism, and involvement."
Last year, the club held a protest to advocate for a ban of dissection and vivisection in biology classes. The school policy has been to allow students to opt out of dissection labs, Michael Piscitelli, the supervisor for math and science at the high school, told The Enterprise last year. "If a student objects because they’re afraid they’ll get sick or because they’re philosophically against it, we’ll give them an alternate assignment," he said at the time. Not many students chose to opt out, he said.
After talking with members of Last Chance, it was agreed the opt-out policy would be better publicized, Piscitelli said last year. Teachers now include a statement about it in their course outlines and inform students of their ability to opt out during the first week of school, and parents are informed during the schools open house.
Sharma would like to see dissection banned altogether. Piscitelli said dissection lets students understand the complexity of animal tissue in ways that computer simulations dont.
"We’re still working to have labs that don’t involve animals," said Sharma this week.
Last Chance is also reaching out to the community. "This summer, in Altamont," said Sharma, "we’ll have a free community event with vendors for vegan and vegetarian food."
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