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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 24, 2008


After AG’s probe
Will GCSD retain Girvin & Ferlazzo?

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The school board here will discuss on Tuesday whether or not to retain the legal services of Girvin & Ferlazzo.

The Albany firm was implicated last week in a probe started by the Attorney General’s Office into what Andrew Cuomo has called “a payroll padding scheme.”

James Girvin, Kathy Ann Wolverton, Kristine Lanchantin, and Jeffrey Honeywell had their membership in the state retirement system revoked by the state comptroller because, said Thomas DiNapoli on April 17, the lawyers were incorrectly reported as employees by the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES. Employees can collect pensions, while independent contractors do not receive that benefit.

The Guilderland School District has a three-year contract with Girvin & Ferlazzo that ends June 30, according to school board President Richard Weisz. (The Enterprise filed a Freedom of Information Law request for a copy of the contract on April 18 and, as of yesterday, had not received a response from the district, which, by law, has five business days to reply.)

“Jeff is identified as a primary resource,” said Weisz of Honeywell. “Overall, the district has been pleased with his work.”

Honeywell told The Enterprise yesterday that he was “not at liberty” to answer questions in the press. He was willing to make two points. “The situation that is being reviewed has nothing to do with Guilderland,” he said. “Our relationship with them is purely as an independent contractor.”

Honeywell concluded, “Point number two, we are continuing to fully cooperate with the attorney general and his review of the situation.”

Guilderland’s contract with Girvin & Ferlazzo does have an option, Weisz said, that would allow the district to end it, and the school board will discuss the matter at its next meeting, on April 29.

AG’s probe

Cuomo began his investigation on Long Island in February after Newsday reported abuses where lawyers were claiming pensions in multiple school districts. Cuomo said at a press conference earlier this month that his office has found about 20 Long Island lawyers were involved. He then expanded the probe to 20 counties upstate and found about 70 more attorneys were involved. The damage to the state, Cuomo said, “could have been in the tens of millions of dollars.”

Cuomo said that the “scam” had been going on for “years and years and years” and that, while it had “been noticed in the past,” it hadn’t been aggressively pursued.

“School districts say, we were relying on the lawyer for the legal advice,” said Cuomo, indicating those same lawyers were the ones benefiting from the “great scam.”

He went on, “You can have a lawyer on staff who’s a legitimate employee ... If that lawyer is part of a firm providing services, that’s the red flag.”

Comptroller’s regs

The probe has been extended beyond schools to municipalities as well. In early April, DiNapoli announced strengthened regulations to guide local governments in determining who is an employee.

Letters sent to municipal and school leaders by the comptroller’s office stress the importance of correctly classifying “individuals who provide professional services.” Elected officials, public officers, and employees of participating public employers are eligible to be part of the retirement system and receive benefits; independent contractors are not.

A form must now be filled out for new hires to certify whether attorneys, physicians, architects, engineers, accountants, or auditors are employees or independent contractors.

The form poses a series of questions. Employees, for example, typically are supervised and evaluated by their employer, work set hours, have a permanent work space, earn wages through a payroll system, and have taxes and benefit deductions withheld while independent contractors do not.

Board’s choice

Guilderland Superintendent John McGuire said that any of the lawyers used by the school district are hired as consultants, and none of them, including Jeffrey Honeywell, collect pensions.

McGuire described the contract with Girvin & Ferlazzo as a “three-year retainer agreement” and said he believed it has a 30-day opt-out clause. He also said he thought the retainer fee was “in the realm of $35,000 a year.”

McGuire, who has been Guilderland’s superintendent since last fall, said he is “very positively impressed” with the work done by Honeywell and said that, when he was an administrator at neighboring Bethlehem, he was impressed with the work done by Girvin & Ferlazzo there.

“They’re very knowledgeable, specializing in education law,” said McGuire of the firm. “They‘ve been responsive to our needs.”

What happens next, he said, “will be the board’s determination.” McGuire said, “It’s really their call.”

Asked what his role will be at Tuesday’s meeting, McGuire said, “I’ll be reporting very objectively and very positively.”

He anticipates the board will put out a request for proposals and that Girvin & Ferlazzo will be able to apply.

Asked if he’ll make a recommendation to the board, McGuire said, “My recommendation would be to gather all the relevant information. It’s very early on in the process. You need to get both sides of the story.” Asked about Girvin & Ferlazzo’s side of the story, McGuire said he had spoken with lawyers at the firm. “Their feeling is this needs to play out,” he said. “They’re happy to speak with the board….They don’t want this to play out in the media.”

He concluded, “Our experience has been a positive one in terms of attorney-client relationship. I don’t have anything negative to say.”

Since Guilderland does not appear to be in violation, The Enterprise asked board President Weisz if he thought there were problems in continuing with Girvin & Ferlazzo. “I don’t know enough about what’s going on,” said Weisz. He said he has read that the state comptroller in 1997 “checked these kinds of agreements” and did not find they were illegal.

“Our retainer agreement is so different than BOCES,” Weisz said, reiterating, “I’m still finding out what’s going on ... The board will discuss it at our next meeting.” He also said that he could not speak for the board.

Board member Peter Golden said, “If indeed this is true, lawyers who have done this have taken money from the education of children and escalated our already difficult property tax situation and further undermined taxpayers’ faith in government.”


GTA and GPA square off
Five run for three seats on GCSD board

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — It’s a five-way race for three seats on the Guilderland School Board this spring and, once again, a parents’ group is squaring off against the teachers’ union with endorsements.

Two newcomers — Judy Slack and Christine Kenefick — joined the three incumbents — Catherine Barber, John Dornbush, and Peter Golden — in filing petitions by Monday to run in the May 20 election.

The teachers’ union is “enthusiastically supporting” three of the candidates — Slack, Barber, and Dornbush — according to Chris Claus, the president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, which has 750 members.

“We’ve offered to provide help to them in ways they would find useful,” said Claus on Tuesday, adding he has yet to hear back from the candidates on what those ways will be.

Last year, for the first time, the union offered candidates money for their campaigns. And, for the second time, the GTA mailed cards to students’ homes supporting the budget and selected candidates. Use of the addresses, obtained through the school district, became controversial this year, so Claus said the GTA will not be using the list.

Golden is endorsed by Guilderland Parents Advocate, which founder Melissa Mirabile describes as a watchdog group with “a few hundred” members. “When the teachers’ union began to use the data base to influence voters and pay candidates to run, the need stepped up for independent candidates,” she said.

Golden, she said, “has no conflict of interest and no hidden agenda” and he has saved the district “millions of dollars” by “challenging the status quo” on health-insurance. “He has made sound financial and intellectual decisions,” said Mirabile, concluding, “Peter is independent and he’s brilliant.”

All five candidates support the $84 million spending plan proposed for next year. Voters will decide on the budget and elect three school board members on May 20. The posts are unpaid and carry three-year terms.

Kenefick

Christine Kenefick, 40, is making her first run for school board. A member of the Citizens’ Budget  Advisory Committee, she e-mailed from Paris this week, “I do support the budget.”

Kenefick, who graduated cum laude from Albany Law School and the University at Albany, works as a confidential law clerk for Anthony Carpinello, an Appellate Division judge. “My job as a law clerk entails analyzing a myriad of legal issues before my court, the New York State Appellate Division,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I am a former adjunct professor at Albany Law School, as well.”

She is married with two children — a fourth-grader and a kindergartner, both at Westmere Elementary School. Kenefick served on the Westmere Building Cabinet last year and this year.

A runner, she has put together a team for the Race for the Cure, with funds going to combat breast cancer. “I have put the team together every year since 2003,” she wrote. “We have won the largest team award for the past three years ... It consists of family, friends, lawyers, and several breast cancer survivors.”

“She has raised thousands and thousands of dollars,” said her husband, Mark Sanza.

Slack

Slack, 64, will retire in June after 24 years as a teaching assistant at Lynnwood Elementary School and said she would like to keep her hand in education. “I’d like to continue to be involved,” she said. “The children are our future. I’m concerned.”

Slack went on, “I’m first of all a mother who is very proud of my children and their education, and I’m proud I’ve worked with kids forever. That’s who I am.”

She continued, “I have three children with different needs and their needs were met by the school district.”

Asked about her goals in serving on the board, Slack said, “I’d like to bring some peace ... The board needs to work as a board. Arguing takes up a lot of the energy. Hopefully, we can get people who work as a group instead of as individuals.”

Slack has lived in the district since 1969 and currently lives in Altamont. “I’m well aware of school taxes,” she said.

Slack said she will be running on a slate with Barber and Dornbush.

The incumbents

The three incumbents were profiled last week. (Go online to www.altamontenterprise.com, under archives for April 17, 2008.) The Enterprise, in a later edition, will conduct in-depth interviews on the issues with all five candidates.

Catherine Barber, a lawyer and musician, is running for a second three-year term. As a mother, she likes being involved in the schools, she said, and considers education to be of “the utmost importance.”

Her goals include continuing the expansion of foreign-language instruction at the elementary level, which she sees as a manifestation of what the school district is about. “We support arts and language,” said Barber.

John Dornbush, who has been on the board since 1999 and currently serves as its vice president, is running for a fourth term, he said, because of his commitment to education, and to the “families of the community.”

Dornbush, who works as the assistant director of financial aid at the University of Albany, plans to continue his focus on technology, preparing students for high-tech jobs.

Peter Golden, an author, is running for a second term. He plans to continue pushing for “cost containment” and accountability, “pushing for outcomes,” he said.

Calling service on the school board “a thankless task,” Golden said, “You’re not performing your legal mandate if you’re not willing to confront people. If you pretend you’re an extension of the administration, you shouldn’t be on the board.”


Eight in all
Board interviews candidates for top cop slot

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Five candidates have been interviewed for police chief and there are three more to go.

The town board began interviews earlier this month and expects to finish the final three on April 28, said Supervisor Kenneth Runion.  Acting chief Carol Lawlor, who has been filling the post since former Chief James Murley left amid controversy about a year ago, was among those interviewed.  She and Lieutenant Curtis Cox, second in command of the roughly 30-member department, took the promotion-class Civil Service exam on March 8, the results of which aren’t expected for another couple of weeks. 

Others interviewed include a person currently serving as chief in another department, and a person from the initial list of three candidates given to the town by the Civil Service Department — the other two declined to be interviewed — and a third person who responded to advertising that the town posted, Runion said.

After the remaining three — one from Rensselaer County, one from Hicksville in Nassau County, and one from Wallkill in Orange County — have been interviewed, the board will likely invite two or three back for second interviews, to be conducted at the beginning of May, said Runion.

“I would hope we’ll be ready to make a decision by June,” he said of when the board might make its final selection.

“The last chief was there for 35 years,” said Councilman Warren Redlich, stressing the importance of the board’s choice.

The district attorney’s investigation of the allegations that prompted Murley to leave has shifted direction, said Heather Orth, spokesperson for the DA’s office.  She wouldn’t comment further on the public integrity unit’s investigation.  “It is ongoing,” she said.

“I’d be talking in a vacuum,” Murley said when asked about the investigation.  “I really don’t have any idea.”

He hasn’t been in touch with anyone at the police department, he said, so he knew nothing about an alleged threat between Senior Investigator John Tashjian and Patrolman David Romano, president of the Police Benevolent Association.

“It was the product of gossip and innuendo,” said Michael Ravalli, the lawyer for the police union.  Tashjian, the husband of Lawlor, and Romano have worked things out, Ravalli said.

“I would be violating the law if I were to discuss anything like this,” Cox said when asked about the incident.  “I can tell you that we have no complaint at this time.”

One section of the state’s Civil Rights Law says that the personnel records of police officers are confidential — a directive recently impressed upon the town in a letter dated Feb. 6 from Ravalli.

Runion cited the same section of law when he declined to comment.

“As far as I know, there hasn’t been anything reported… that would affect Deputy Chief Lawlor’s ability to become chief,” he said when asked if an incident involving her husband could affect Lawlor’s standing for the chief position.

“This has been a long time for both of us,” Lawlor said of her role as a supervisor in the Guilderland Police department, where Tashjian has worked for 25 years.  Tashjian has always reported to another supervisor, she said, a system that has worked well.

When asked if she thought the allegations might affect her prospects, she said, “I wouldn’t think so.”


Middle of the road
Man arrested on Route 20

GUILDERLAND — On Sunday evening, police say, Jonathan D. Brainard stood in the middle of Western Avenue near the Princetown line, wearing an Albany Police Department jacket and holding a can of beer in his hand.

After several calls from passing drivers, Guilderland Police arrived to find him intoxicated and obstructing traffic, said Lieutenant Daniel McNally.  The first officer on the scene “tackled him to the ground,” McNally said, and the pair ended up in a ditch.  The officer was later taken to the hospital for possible shoulder dislocation, McNally said. 

Brainard, 26, of 3770 Western Turnpike, Altamont, reported no injuries, according to a release from the police department.

“He had a jacket on that had Albany PD patches on it,” McNally said, which resulted in a charge of first-degree criminal impersonation for Brainard, although he didn’t claim to be an officer.  He was also charged with second-degree assault, third-degree criminal mischief, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon.  The can of beer with which Brainard hit the officer in the head qualifies as a weapon, McNally said.

Brainard was remanded to Albany County’s jail without bail, the release says.

— Saranac Hale Spencer


Never on Sunday?
Mezza Notte wants to extend hours

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A flower-shop-turned-restaurant is looking to modify its operation after a year in business and the neighbors are still opposed.

Two years ago, when Connie Ware proposed opening an upscale Italian restaurant in the building at 2026 Western Ave. that had been Phebe’s Florist & Gifts, neighbors in the largely residential neighborhood just off of Route 20 spoke against it.  When the plans were approved, the restaurant, Mezza Notte, was to be open six days a week in the evenings, but Ware was before the zoning board of appeals last Wednesday, with a lawyer in tow, asking permission to serve on Sundays and stay open later on some nights.

A handful of neighbors were there, as they were two years ago, to ask that the board deny Ware’s request.

Victor Caponera, Ware’s lawyer, began addressing the board by saying that his client was willing to withdraw her request for some additional seating, after the board’s chairman, Peter Barber, had read a letter from the town’s planner, Jan Weston.  She expressed concern about regulating the seating as it was proposed to be amended.  Ware agreed to keep the inside seating to 52, although she had initially proposed increasing the total to 60, but held to her proposal for adding patio seating, which would total 18.  That number of seats wouldn’t require additional parking, Barber said.

Parking at the restaurant was one of the primary concerns raised by residents of the nearby neighborhood.  They say that not only has the traffic on their small suburban roads increased, but restaurant patrons often park in front of their homes.  Louis Gagliardi, who leases his adjacent parking lot to Ware for use as restaurant parking in the evening, told the board that the lot’s space was adequate.  Neighbors, however, said that overflow parking still ends up on their streets.

The basic consensus among the neighbors was that the way the restaurant has been run is unsatisfactory — they cited the traffic, some smells, and general disturbance as the main issues. 

“That’s the only day I have that’s private,” said Phyllis Roads of Sundays, after she noted the various disturbances she has throughout the week.  “Now they’re going to take that away from me, too.”

Earlier, Caponera had noted to the board that, when Ware made her initial proposal two years ago, she was not represented by a zoning lawyer.  Had he been representing her, he would have requested Sunday hours, Caponera said.

The board continued the public hearing until May 21.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Voted unanimously to grant a variance that would allow Daniel Tarullo to build a front porch at 9 Woodridge Court;

— Voted unanimously to deny Lawrence DiNovo’s request to house a family in his in-law apartment at 3064 Spawn Rd.;  the family had lost its home, he said.  Only relations are allowed to live in in-law apartments, said Barber, before suggesting that DiNovo approach the town board for permission to house the family;

— Voted unanimously to approve a sign for Marissa’s Place at 5 Karner Rd.; and

— Voted unanimously to approve a Belltone sign for 1728 Western Ave.


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