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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 21, 2011
Rensselaerville Dems at odds with highway super
By Zach Simeone
RENSSELAERVILLE Since he took office nearly a year-and-a-half ago, Conservative Highway Superintendent Gary Zeh has met with opposition from the town board’s Democratic majority on many of his proposed equipment purchases; his replacement plan for old town vehicles; and recently, the $4,000 purchase of a machine that was intended to increase the longevity of town vehicles.
At the April 12 town board meeting, residents gathered to voice their support of Zeh and the highway department, and their work improving town roads.
“People were upset with the town board acting in a partisan way,” Zeh told The Enterprise this week. “Seems to most people I’m getting harassed.”
Among the residents who spoke out in support of Zeh and his crew were former Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg, a Republican; his former deputy supervisor, Richard Tollner; and Kenneth Cooke, an outspoken resident and husband of Conservative Councilwoman Marion Cooke all of whom have repeatedly disagreed with the primarily Democratic board in the past.
Margaret Sedlmeir of Preston Hollow told the board that she thinks certain board members “want to play ‘I gotcha’” with Zeh, “instead of acting in a mature, practical, responsible way for the good and safety of the town.” He has been treated with disrespect, month after month, she said, despite the apparent improvement in the condition of town roads.
David Bowdish also took the floor to address the highway department.
“I think Gary and his crew should be thanked by all the taxpayers for doing one tremendous job,” Bowdish said, “and I hope it doesn’t snow anymore this year.” Applause followed.
Later, during Zeh’s highway report, there was a vote on the board to put out a request for proposals for a piece of highway equipment, and Conservative Councilman Robert Bolte said of Zeh, “When he’s had the right equipment, he’s done a good job, and the roads show it right now. If you drive on many of the roads, they’re hard, the ditches are done, and they’re way better than they were in the last many years.” Zeh, in the 2008 election, had ousted the longtime Democratic highway superintendent, G. Jon Chase; his son, Gary Chase, is a councilman.
Planning board member Richard Amedure addressed the board about its three Democratic members’ Supervisor Marie Dermody, Councilman John Kudlack, and Councilman Gary Chase conferring by phone to write a letter to the Enterprise editor about the recent 3-to-2 vote to return Zeh’s pressure washer.
“It appears, from the audience side, that there is much happening that is not happening in the public forum,” he said. “My understanding is, anytime there’s a quorum, any time the three of you talk…and make a decision, such as [to] send a letter to the paper,” without first advertising the meeting, “that seems to be a violation of the law.”
According to Robert Freeman, director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, case law shows that, if a majority of a board decides to take action, that can happen only at a valid meeting, which requires reasonable notice.
Freeman cited the 1998 case of Cheevers v. Town of Union, heard by the New York State Supreme Court in Broome County: “The issue was the town’s policy concerning tax assessment reductions, clearly a matter of public business,” the court said. “There was no physical gathering, but four members of the five member board discussed the issue in a series of telephone calls. As a result, a quorum of members of the board were ‘present’ and determined to publish the Dear Resident article. The failure to actually meet in person or have a telephone conference in order to avoid a ‘meeting’ circumvents the intent of the Open Meetings Law.”
Dermody took issue with Zeh at last week’s meeting over a voucher for payment to Abele Tractor and Equipment.
“On April 22 of last year, the town board authorized the rental of the excavator for four to six months,” Dermody told Zeh. “This payment represents nine months. So, you’ve exceeded authorization without coming back to us to get that re-authorized. And that was at the cost of $11,100.”
Of the four-to-six month period, Zeh said, “That was an estimate; I would say I underestimated the use of the machine.”
Dermody replied, “We paid…$34,000 for that rental, and we only got a 37-percent utilization rate out of it…based on hours put on the machine, divided by the hours that we were paying for.”
Said Zeh, “If you divide the rental rate by the miles of ditching we did, it ends up at about 33 cents a foot it cost us to rent that machine this year.”
Zeh and the town board last butted heads over whether or not Zeh violated the town’s procurement policy when he purchased a pressure washer.
When it came time to pay the bills at the board’s March 8 meeting, Dermody declined to sign a voucher from Van Buren Enterprises for the $3,930 machine. Zeh, she said, had violated the town’s procurement law in making the purchase.
Zeh had purchased the washer to increase the longevity of town vehicles, which often accumulate damaging amounts of salt while on the road.
“An expenditure of this amount required a written request for proposals, which also then required town-board approval,” she said.
Zeh apologized to the board, adding that he had read the procurement policy and did not recall reading that he needed town-board approval. However, the procurement policy does not include any language requiring the highway superintendent to get board approval for the purchase, only that he needed to put out a request for proposals and get three price quotes. While Zeh had obtained these quotes, he said that one of the three existed only in verbal form and as a note on a piece of paper before the date of the actual purchase on Feb. 10; the third written quote officially came in on March 2.
At last week’s meeting, Zeh told the board that he thinks there is a double standard in place, reminding the audience of recent work by the highway department and Recycling Coordinator Jon Whitbeck to trim back trees outside of Town Hall that had become overgrown and were damaging the American flag on the property.
“The supervisor made a decision in the best interest of the town to have the trees trimmed out front without the town board’s approval,” Zeh said.
Dermody defended her decision this week.
“It was out of respect for the American flag,” Dermody said. “I had no choice leave the trees there; get criticized. Take the flag down; get criticized. If we didn’t fly the American flag in front of a public building, I would have gotten criticized.”
At last week’s meeting, Zeh asked the board to publically forgive his purchasing the pressure washer.
“Councilperson Kudlack ratified your actions,” Zeh told Dermody of the tree-pruning. “Councilman Bolte also voted that your actions were in the best interest of the town, and your actions were ratified. So, what I’m asking tonight is for Councilman Kudlack to ratify my decisions, that they were in the best interest of the town, when I purchased the pressure washer.”
Dermody replied, “My decision to trim the trees did not cost the taxpayers any money.”
“Right,” said Zeh. “Unfortunately, the highway department does.”
Kudlack suggested the town put out another RFP for the pressure washer, and the board and Zeh did so.
Following the discussion on the pressure washer at last week’s meeting, Zeh addressed an e-mail written by Dermody to Van Buren Enterprises, informing the company that she was “embarrassed” to inform them that Zeh would be returning the pressure washer, and that the purchase was “illegal” in nature.
“The problem with the e-mail is the way she addressed me,” Zeh told The Enterprise. “She had no authority to contact the vendor anyways. It’s something she did on her own, and it’s just another way to downgrade me, to grandstand.”
The e-mail went on to state that “any fees associated with the use of this pressure washer are to be assessed to Gary Zeh personally.”
But there were no costs to be assessed, according to Zeh.
“It’s been returned,” he said. “The vendor took it back even though it had been used.” The town had not yet paid for the washer, he said.
Before purchasing the new pressure washer, Zeh had been bringing his own washer to the highway garage from home, Zeh said, as the previous washer was broken. But, while the new washer has been returned, Zeh will not be bringing his own from home anymore.
“I’m done loaning it to the town,” he said. “I loaned it to them for a year. My pressure washer’s not built for that kind of use.”
At last week’s meeting, Zeh confronted Dermody about the e-mail.
“Is it up to the supervisor to tell the vendor that she is embarrassed to bring this matter to his attention?” he asked. “Is it up to the supervisor to note that I performed an illegal purchase, and that any fees associated with the pressure washer are to be assessed to me personally? And tell me when I have to have it returned by?
“And that is what I’m not going to put up with anymore. You are going to treat me like a human being. It’s kind of hard for me to do my job when I have to put up with that all the time.”