Is the law irrelevant in the town of Westerlo?
We pondered this all week as we considered the debacle that unfolded at the Jan. 3 re-organizational meeting. We’re generally comforted by the ritual of the new year. After sometimes stormy campaigns, those who are elected come together to take the oath of office in a civilized fashion.
Democracy moves on. Being a country that follows the laws sustains us as a society.
Those who have been elected to office raise their right hands before the citizens who have gathered at Town Hall, and they promise to support the federal and state laws and to faithfully discharge their duties.
But the swearing-in that took place in Westerlo on Jan. 3 made a mockery of democracy.
Richard Rapp, Westlero’s long-time supervisor, has taken the oath of office many times.
How could he not know the law? Or, if he knew it, how could he not uphold it?
Here’s what happened. Westerlo was short two town board members. They had both submitted resignations the day after Election Day. Both knew well in advance they were leaving their posts — decisions based on personal preferences — and broke their contract with the people who elected them. They could have given notice months before.
This left no means for the people to have a choice, an election, in choosing their new leaders.
Instead, the all-Democratic town board was to appoint two new members on Jan. 3. As a five-member board, a majority of three is needed to make an appointment.
The state law is clear on this. It is there for everyone — including town supervisors and town board members — to read. It says, in part: “Every act, motion or resolution shall require for its adoption the affirmative vote of a majority of all the members of the town board.”
Two of the board members — Rapp and Alfred Field — voted for the appointees. Councilmen Anthony Sherman said “nay.”
He wouldn’t tell our reporter. More importantly, he didn’t tell the people who had elected him. We believe the people deserve an explanation from the man they chose to represent them.
Sherman may very well have a good reason; perhaps he believes the private-club method for picking representatives is wrong. But the people need to hear the reason.
Supervisor Rapp was questioned on Jan. 3 about the legality of the appointments; he indicated they would stand.
We commend the citizen, Maureen Sikule, who asked him. If Westerlo is to get its government back on track, it will take citizens to ask questions and find answers.
We commend the town clerk, too; Kathleen Spinnato also asked. She went a step further after Rapp told her the appointments were valid. She listened to legal advice on the matter and took it upon herself to tell the candidates that the vote did not count.
But where does this leave Westerlo?
The town is now in a legal Catch-22. That phrase comes from one of our favorite novels, an anti-war treatise by Joseph Heller. Heller’s protagonist, John Yossarian, a bombardier, wants to be grounded from combat flight. But that can only happen if he’s found to be crazy and anyone who wants to get out of combat flight isn’t crazy and so can’t be evaluated.
The way that logic applies in Westerlo, in an unending curricular fashion — enough to drive even Yossarian crazy — is this: Without a majority, the town board can’t appoint new members or, for that matter, carry on any other town business. But, without the new board members, it may not get a majority.
The way out of the conundrum is simple. It’s what should have been done in the first place: Westerlo needs to hold an election and let the people choose their leaders.