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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 21, 2011

Wash away the pettiness and start the flow of communication

Pettiness in politics does not serve the people.

A case in point is a recent Rensselaerville vote, split along party lines, where the growing fallout has increased ire between parties without allowing focus on the important issues.

Three Democrats and two Conservatives make up the town board. Rensselaerville also has a Conservative highway superintendent who ousted a Democrat to win the post in the last election.

Since we covered the March 8 town board meeting in Rensselaerville, our opinion pages for weeks have carried letters — from both citizens and elected officials — on the return of a pressure washer. The April 12 meeting was packed with partisan protesters, most of them backing the highway superintendent.

Road salt ruins vehicles. It can cause thousands of dollars worth of damage to town trucks.

Rensselaerville’s highway superintendent, Gary Zeh, brought his own washer from home to clean the town trucks after the town’s washer broke. Then he purchased one for $3,930 from Van Buren Enterprises.

So far, so good. Spending less than $4,000 to prevent tens of thousands of dollars in damage is a wise decision.

But, at the March 8 meeting, the board’s supervisor, Marie Dermody, declined to sign the voucher.

“It’s in violation of the town procurement law,” she said of the purchase. “An expenditure of this amount required a written request for proposals, which also then required town-board approval.”

The problem with Dermody’s statement is the law doesn’t require town-board approval for a purchase of that amount.

The law does state that equipment that costs between $3,000 and $10,000, like the pressure-washer, requires a written request for proposals and at least three quotes.

Zeh said he had gotten three proposals and chose the least expensive. Dermody read the quotes from three vendors, which presumably had been submitted by Zeh, and also requested documentation. Zeh declined to get the documents when asked.

At issue was one of the price quotes, from Grainger Industrial Supply, which was first obtained verbally. Zeh told our Hilltown reporter Zach Simeone after the March meeting that he had received the Grainger quote prior to purchasing the pressure washer. “The verbal quote was documented and handed in with the voucher because I had not received the written quote yet. The written quote was handed in as soon as I received it —March 2nd,” Zeh stated.

We reviewed the documents and found this to be true.

At the March 8 meeting, Zeh said it was not fiscally efficient to return the now-used pressure washer and then go out to get proposals for another one.

Dermody replied, “You should be personally responsible for purchasing it. Pay for it and take it home. I don’t know what to tell you.”

The board’s three Democrats — Dermody and councilmen Gary Chase and John Kudlack — voted to return the washer; the two Conservative council members — Robert Bolte and Marion Cooke — were opposed.

How does this serve the people of Rensselaerville?

The town had no washer for the rest of the salt season. We don’t blame Zeh for no longer wanting to loan the town his own washer. When Zeh does go through the procedure again, it will be a net loss for the taxpayers. Damage will have already been done to the trucks.

Zeh was elected by the people; he has the right, within the law, to make decisions on how to run his department. Purchasing a pressure washer is a wise choice.

But he must follow the law, which, in this case, requires three proposals for the washer. We know he got the three proposals because we reviewed the documents. But Zeh should have produced them when asked. His office is in the same building where the board meets; it would have been a simple matter.

Zeh said at last week’s meeting, he wants to be treated like a human being. We all deserve as much. Had Zeh been treated with respect, we have no doubt he would have responded to the request from the supervisor.

Dermody is right that the town board has ultimate responsibility to the taxpayers and the law must be followed. This lesson was made clear in Rensselaerville last December.

After citizens had pushed for years for an audit of town finances, Albany County’s comptroller, Michael Conners, complied, covering the fiscal years from 2005 to 2009. He recommended that the board appeal to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for over $373,000 spent on a Pearson Road culvert.

“We didn’t follow FEMA guidelines,” Dermody said at the December town board meeting, stating that reapplying could affect other FEMA projects. One board member called it “opening a can of worms.”

Conners’s audit stated, “Most of the town’s problems in regards to FEMA were attributed to substandard and inadequate record-keeping and the lack of oversight by the town board. The town board, the previous supervisor and the current town supervisor failed to ensure that the town bookkeeper established the proper general ledger accounts and bank accounts…

“The town board and the town supervisor should have maintained oversight of the town’s FEMA projects and instead, the town board indirectly passed this responsibility to the [former] highway superintendent. The highway superintendent’s authority does not supersede the town board’s statutory responsibility to the town’s taxpayers.”

Over $373,000 is a steep price for taxpayers to bear for lack of proper oversight.

The level of competence has deteriorated in Rensselaerille to the point where the government isn’t functioning for the good of the people.

Dermody overstepped her bounds by e-mailing the vendor for the pressure washer that the purchase was “illegal” and that any fees for its use should “be assessed to Gary Zeh personally.”

Political debate, hearing two or more sides to an issue, is a valuable part of the democratic process. But once differences are aired — most productively, in a civil manner — the elected representatives of the people must put their constituents first. Personal sniping, petty maneuvering, misstating the law, making false accusations, and prideful refusal to comply with reasonable requests make government a mockery.

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