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Hilltowns Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 28, 2008
By Zach Simeone
RENSSELAERVILLE The town board passed a code of ethics Thursday that, among other things, puts a stranglehold on nepotism, long a contentious issue in the town. It also calls for the creation of a board of ethics.
The code states that a town official’s spouse and other family members are not allowed to serve in appointed positions if their duties “conflict or appear to conflict within the scope of duties of the official,” nor may a person be part of any board, commission, or body in which his or her family member serves as an official.
Town Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg thinks nepotism should be done away with completely. But despite this fact, he voted against the resolution because he disagreed with other things. He and fellow Republican Robert Lansing made up the nay-saying minority. The three democrats carried the vote.
All in the family
“I’m a reform candidate,” Nickelsberg said this week, “and we reformed everything, which is to say that we are demanding that certain things not be allowed, and one thing that’s not allowed is nepotism.”
And nepotism, he says, means 12 Chase family members in town jobs. “They always get first chance at whatever job they want,” said Nickelsberg.
Earlier this year, Councilman Gary Chase voted on how much his mother would make as clerk to the highway superintendent; his father, G. Jon Chase, is the highway superintendent.
“If you’re voting on your mother’s salary, it’s definitely illegal,” said Nickelsberg. “If we got sued, we’d lose. Our insurance rates would go up, and it would consume our time and town money.”
Town Attorney Joseph Catalano, who was re-appointed to his post when the democrats regained the majority on the board, has said New York’s conflict-of-interest policy states that an official should recuse himself when voting on anything that he will gain from financially.
“And, of course, Gary Chase cast the swing vote. He voted on what his mother should earn, and whether she should have the job. But if the town attorney allows it, it happens. Classic case,” he said.
When asked why he did not recuse himself, Chase replied, “Because I was elected by a majority of the town.”
In the past, Councilman Chase said, “In my opinion, it’s hard enough to get people to volunteer for jobs on top of trying to find 38 new people [for] some of these jobs.” The 38 was a reference to people in town posts with family connections. During his re-election campaign, Chase had said that the town was founded on nepotism.
Nickelsberg believes that town residents feel bullied by the Chase family. “When I went out and did some campaigning, I saw a lot of fear,” Nickelsberg said. “Some residents…have reported being denied town services for voting against the Chases. A lot of it comes from the stories; people are afraid something will happen to their family,” he said.
Board of ethics
The supervisor said he asked six lawyers for their opinions, but only two have gone on record. Five out of six, he said, told him that you can never vote on what a relative will earn; Nickelsberg named Town Attorney Joseph Catalano as the only one in disagreement. None of the lawyers were available for comment.
However, a non-binding advisory opinion from the office of State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, issued in April, said 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 [a] second family member, he or she should recuse [himself] or herself from the deliberations and voting on those matters.”
The letter also recommends, “If the town does not have a board of ethics, it consider convening one,” the purpose of which would be to answer such questions as whether or not it is legal for someone to vote on a family member’s salary.
So, a board of ethics was birthed by the code of ethics resolution passed at last week’s town board meeting.
It will have five members, none of which can be officers or employees of the town. The first five members will serve staggered terms of one to five years, so that one term ends every year. They will be appointed by the town board, and will receive no salary or compensation.
As stated in the resolution, the board will “render advisory opinions to municipal officers and employees with respect to the Rensselaerville Code of Ethics, pursuant to a written request by a municipal officer or employee.”
In other words, the board can give advice to decision-makers, but not make decisions itself.
“They’re giving [Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg] a month to decide if he wants anything changed,” Town Clerk Kathleen Hallenbeck said of the new resolution. “He has until next month’s board meeting.”
Dissolving the town newsletter?
The consensus among board and audience members last Thursday was that doing away with the town newsletter would be a good way to save taxpayers’ money.
The current town budget appropriated $12,000 for the newsletter, down from the $25,000 in last year’s budget.
Councilman Marie Dermody said that canceling the newsletter would also eliminate the town’s need for a new, expensive copy machine that the board was planning on purchasing. This, she said, would save taxpayers even more.
“We’re putting together September’s newsletter,” said Kathleen Hallenbeck, town clerk. “A questionnaire will go out with September’s newsletter.” The questionnaire will ask town residents to consider whether changes should be made to the newsletter, or if it should simply be discontinued.