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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, May 22, 2008

R’ville divided over meaning
Following AG’s opinion, semantics ensue

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Rensselaerville residents and officials disagreed this month over an opinion handed down by the state’s Attorney General’s office.

Earlier this year, the town board directed Joseph Catalano, the town’s attorney, to obtain an opinion on whether Democratic Councilman Gary Chase can vote for the appointment and salary of his mother as clerk to the highway superintendent.  The highway superintendent is Gary Chase’s father, G. Jon Chase. 

On New Year’s Day, as the Democrats gained control of the town board, they created the position of clerk to the highway superintendent and appointed Joyce Chase to the position, a post she had held before the recent Republican administration saw it as a conflict of interest.  Councilman Chase did not recuse himself from the vote, which was carried 3-2, with the Republicans opposed.  At a later meeting, the board voted on Joyce Chase’s salary; Councilman Chase also did not recuse himself from that vote, which, according to Rensselaerville’s town clerk, was 4-1.

The April 11 opinion, which is non-binding, says, “We have opined in the past that two members of the same family generally may serve one municipality, but to the extent that one family member is involved in establishing the terms and conditions of employment or salary of second family member, he or she should recuse him- or herself from the deliberations and voting on those matters.”

The opinion says conflict-of-interest questions are more appropriately answered by local authorities who are in positions to be aware of relevant facts and local conditions that may bear on the issue.

The opinion recommends that, if the town does not have a board of ethics, it consider convening one to consider such questions. 

“We have previously explained that such a board can be convened on short notice,” the opinion says. 

Catalano, who was appointed by the Democrats and replaced a lawyer the Republicans in the former administration had chosen, called the attorney general’s opinion “non-committal at best.”  He and the town’s supervisor, Republican Jost Nickelsberg, quarreled at the May 8 board meeting over their interpretations of the opinion.  Nickelsberg said “should” means “ought to.”  Catalano said the opinion says “should,” not “must,” and asked Nickelsberg whether “should” is a mandatory term. 

Resident Noreen Gangi and Nickelsberg claimed that the vote on the clerk’s appointment, given the opinion, is 2-2.  In a 2-2 vote, no action is taken.

“Our votes are based on trusting that you [the town board] would ethically represent the best interests of our townspeople,” said Gangi.  She asked that the town board remove the clerk immediately and “act openly and fairly in advertising any and all other positions that become available” and that all money paid to the clerk be immediately be returned to the town.

The attorney general’s office did not respond before press time. 

In recent months, Rensselaerville’s town board and residents have clashed over the issue of nepotism.  Since Catalano was reinstated on Jan. 1, when power shifted to the Democrats, Nickelsberg, has disagreed with Catalano over a number of issues.  Throughout the two-and-a-half years in which he has served as Rensselaerville’s supervisor, Nickelsberg has fought measures where he has seen conflicts of interest. 

Residents demand ethics and civility

On May 8, at the town board’s meeting, Rensselaerville residents questioned the trust they place in their elected officials and the functionality of the board.  At the meeting, officials discussed many issues, including the attorney general’s opinion, paying vendors on time, hiring a mechanic for the highway department, and changing the amount of time allowed for residents on the town board’s agenda.  Throughout, board members and the highway superintendent made sarcastic and cynical remarks and made personal attacks on one another.  

Resident Francis Coward broke the audience’s silence.  His comments were met with thunderous applause from the large crowd. 

“I’m a taxpayer,” he said, “and I’m so embarrassed with this political nit-picking.  Can we get on with the business and the wider interests of the taxpayers, please?” 

Coward later questioned the board about the town’s code of ethics and whether members of the board are ethical and honest.  His comments followed reports of town officials spending taxpayer money on alcoholic drinks and nightclubs while attending a conference in New York City. 

Coward referred to “an amendment to the town charter” the board discussed and tabled in January. 

“It had to do with honesty and ethics and the conduct of the business of the town to protect the wider interests of the taxpayers,” he said.  “Has that discussion been terminated?  Was it discussed?”

Democratic Councilwoman Marie Dermody said, “We are in the process of putting together a code of ethics.”

She said she had spoken to someone that day at the Albany Law School, and, as soon as a document is put together, she will show it to Catalano.

“We’re going to do what we need to do with it and present it to the town board.  It is in process,” said Dermody. 

“I’m absolutely delighted to think that there could be a discussion on honesty and ethics.  I suppose you either are or you are not.  You can’t be honest Monday, Wednesday, Friday, ethical on Tuesday and Thursday,” said Coward. 

He said he doesn’t know why, after three months, it cannot be brought up again. 

“It’s an amendment to the town charter to protect the wider interests from exactly the sort of sitcom we sat here and listened to tonight,” Coward said.  “Honesty is honesty.  Ethical behavior is ethical behavior.” 

School budgets all pass
At BKW, victors are Sikule and O’Connor

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — The district’s voters on Tuesday supported Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s $20.3 million budget for 2008-09.  This marks the third consecutive year BKW’s budget has passed on the first vote. 

About 59 percent, or 432 voters, gave the go-ahead for next year’s spending plan, and 301, or 41 percent, were opposed.  Next year, the tax levy — the amount to be raised from property taxes — will increase 1.95 percent.  This represents the lowest tax-levy increase since the 1998-99 school year, when BKW’s budget totaled $12.4 million.

In a three-way race for two seats on the school board, incumbent Maureen Sikule, the board’s president, was the top vote-getter, and newcomer Sean O’Connor followed closely behind.  They will begin serving three-year terms this summer.  Edward Ackroyd, running for a seat he lost last year in a four-way race, came in a distant third. 

Sikule, who works for the state’s Thruway Authority, received 510, or 39 percent, of the votes.  O’Connor, who lives on the East Berne-Westerlo border and is a partner of Hudson Financial, LLC, based in Hudson (Columbia County), received 457, or 35 percent, of the votes.  Ackroyd, who lives on the Berne-Knox border and is a semi-retired business owner, received 336, or 26 percent, of the votes.

On Tuesday, the district’s voters also approved a bus proposition, 451 to 243, that totals $352,000.  To purchase three 65-passenger buses and two Chevrolet Suburbans, BKW will use $189,000 from its capital reserve fund for transportation and borrow no more than $163,000, said Timothy Holmes, BKW’s business administrator. 

BKW leaders react

Following Tuesday’s results, candidates and administrators agreed that the faltering economy was important in constructing the school’s budget for next year.

And candidates reacted to the community’s response. 

O’Connor said, “At the meet-the-candidates night, I made a concerted effort to say this shouldn’t be a popularity contest but merely look at those who are putting themselves up for service and pick somebody who reflects what you’re trying to get done on the school board.

“I’m really pleased,” he said.  “I’m happy to be allowed to serve is the bottom line.  Looking forward to a good term and certainly look forward to working with the other people on the board.  I think the board composition is very good at the moment and certainly like the attitudes of [Superintendent] Steve Schrade and Tim Holmes and current administration so I look forward to doing my best.” 

Sikule, who lives in Westerlo, won a second three-year term on Tuesday.  She and O’Connor were asked whether they attribute their wins to anything they emphasized during their campaigns. 

“I think that the community makes a decision as far as how effective they think you were for three years,” Sikule said.  “I believe the people look favorably on the job that I’ve done so far.”

O’Connor said, “I think everyone is certainly feeling the effects of the economy and that seems to be one of the most pressing subjects, whether it’s a regional school board election, a regional election for higher political, or even the presidential election at this point.

“I think everyone recognizes that front and center right now,” he said. 

Until three years ago, BKW had difficulty passing its budgets.

Asked what she thinks this year’s budget being approved means for the district, Sikule said, “I think our district, like every other district, is going to be looking at some tough economic times, and I think that Tim [Holmes] has shown that he’s trying to restrain growth, and I think that we’re going to have to continue to look at that as the economy continues to decline.”

Holmes was hired in January.  Throughout the budget process, he cited rising fuel and energy costs and the state of the economy. 

Asked how he felt about the voters’ response to the budget in his first year at BKW, Holmes said, “I’m very happy with the turnout, and, obviously, with passing the budget…It’s always a good feeling when the public votes ‘yes.’”

Asked what he will look for in designing future budgets, Holmes said, “The main thing is to keep expenses to a minimum — keep the tax levy as low as possible.  That’s key.  Especially with a bad economy.  We’ve got to keep that low, and that’s what we did….”

O’Connor said, “I think the board itself, at this point, and the administration, did a great job of putting together a budget that had the best interests of the school population in mind as well as the residents of the community.  The levy only having to go up 1.95 percent, I think, is a huge positive in the eyes of the community.” 

He said of the six-percent increase in spending, “It didn’t translate into a hefty tax levy for the citizens of the community so I think that was looked on as a positive.” 

BKW’s superintendent, Steven Schrade, said, “It’s a combination of the support from the voters, which we appreciate very much, and the ability of our board and administration to construct a budget which carries a low tax increase…It makes all the difference in the world if you can deliver a low increase in the tax levy.” 

In its budget, BKW eliminated six-tenths of a teaching position and added a six-tenths position; the school did not add any new programs.  Three members of the community — Ackroyd, O’Connor, and Berne Councilman Joseph Golden — worked with members of the school board and the school’s administration to design next year’s budget. 

Asked whether the economy was considered and played a part throughout, Schrade said, “Very much so.  And that was reflected in every meeting that we had with the budget advisory committee.

“As I said at one of the meetings,” he said, “I believe the budget advisory committee served its purpose to send a message to keep the taxes under control.” 

Learning “the esoterics of easements”
New requirements for Berne planners and zoners

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Members of planning and zoning boards are required by state law to take four hours of class each year.  Last week, the Berne Town Board, in a unanimous decision, passed a resolution requiring new members to take courses across their fields. 

Within a year of being appointed, members of Berne’s planning and zoning boards will be required to attend both planning and zoning board overview courses offered by the state’s Department of State or take courses that cover the same content. 

 “The intent is that people should learn the legal basis…before they get into considering the esoterics of easements and stuff like that,” said Councilman Peter Vance, a former chairman of the town’s zoning board of appeals.  The idea, he said, is also that, by taking the courses, they will have an appreciation of the other board and the other board’s position, which, over the years, may have been lacking. 

Vance said the course would meet planning and zoning board members’ four-hour training requirement.

Planning board overview courses cover the powers and duties of planning boards and the administrative and regulatory roles of the board, including comprehensive planning, site-plan review, special-use permits, and subdivision review. 

Zoning-board overview classes address the powers and duties of members and the board’s interrelationship with enforcement officials, the planning board, and county planning agencies.  Instructors discuss requirements on issuing use and area variances and how to interpret zoning. 

Vance said these are the first courses that new members should take. 

“I think this is a good requirement,” said Councilman Joseph Golden, adding that, by taking the courses, people will have a clearer idea of not only of their responsibilities but of their limits.

Other business

In other business, the Berne Town Board:

— Discussed placing two surveillance cameras at Berne Town Park, one at the pavilion and another at the snack bar.  “I think it would certainly deter vandalism at the park,” said Supervisor Kevin Crosier.   Board members discussed past acts of vandalism at the park. 

The town received an estimate from a company in Latham, which Crosier said is owned by a Berne resident, of $3,500 for two motion-activated cameras.  By running a wire and forgoing a wireless camera, the town could save $1,200.  Anyone with a password would be able to view the town park from his computer.  Councilman Vance told The Enterprise only officials would have a password because the cameras would be for security purposes.

The board also continued discussions on additions to the pavilion at the park.  Joel Willsey, who designed the town’s transfer station and also drew up plans for a new Berne library, has drawn up plans.  The board discussed building costs, cosmetics, and specifications and agreed to continue the discussion at its meeting next month;

— Will hold a meeting on the town’s sewer project today (Thursday) at 9 a.m. at Town Hall;

— Voted unanimously to send Joe Welsh, a Berne highway worker, to an annual training session for highway superintendents sponsored by the state and the state’s Association of Towns, from June 2 to 4 at Ithaca College; 

— Voted unanimously, after the town’s attorney, William Conboy, said vehicles carrying under 10 passengers are not bondable, to use $17,000 from the town’s fund balance to pay for the town’s new senior van. 

Earlier this year, the town board voted unanimously to purchase a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan for $21,757.80.  The town has partnered with Community Caregivers, a not-for-profit group of volunteers based in Altamont, who help seniors, people with chronic illnesses, and single and teen parents.  Volunteers with Community Caregivers and volunteers in Berne will transport Berne residents who are 55 and older to doctors’ appointments, to pick up prescriptions, and to shop for groceries. 

Town board members said last week they are working on a policy for the van’s uses.  “It can be used for other things as the policy develops,” said Golden. 

To pay for the van, the town requested member-item grants from Assemblyman John McEneny and Senator Neil Breslin.  McEneny has secured $5,000 for the van, his office confirmed yesterday.  Crosier said it will cost $800 to insure the van for one year and the town will be reimbursed for trips. 

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held on June 14 at 11 a.m. at the senior center on Route 443;

— Discussed contacting members of the community to serve on a committee that will work to update the town’s comprehensive land-use plan.  Planning-board member Timothy Lippert and Conservation-board member Al Raymond have volunteered for the committee.  A member from the zoning board of appeals had not yet volunteered as of last week.  The board met last night. 

Crosier said last week that he submitted a grant application for $25,000 to the American Farmland Trust.  The grant is used to develop farmland protection plans, and towns are required to pay $8,333, of which $1,667 has to be cash and $6,666 can be in kind services.  Crosier said Berne missed the deadline for the first round of $5,000 grants offered through the Greenway Conservancy for the Hudson River Valley.  The next round, Crosier said, is in September; and

— Voted unanimously to close Route 443 from Taber Road to Berne-Knox-Westerlo on Memorial Day from 10 a.m. to noon for the annual Memorial Day parade. 

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