Berne and Knox see limits in town powers, As citizens push boards for resolutions to repeal the state’s SAFE Act
HILLTOWNS — While Westerlo last month demanded the repeal of the state’s gun-control law with a resolution that won applause and handshakes from citizens, town boards in Knox and Berne this week took more mild positions focused on public input.
Town boards in the Hilltowns have looked at similar language in recent weeks for a resolution criticizing the quick process of passing the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act in January and urging the state legislature to hold public hearings on the law.
The Message of Necessity used by Governor Andrew Cuomo waived a three-day review period of the bill, which involves stricter penalties for gun-related crimes and more stringent regulation of guns and ammunition in the state. The SAFE Act was passed in January in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The Knox Town Board passed its resolution on April 9 and had a discussion involving the town’s attorney, John Dorfman, with people in the gallery who wanted the law repealed and a public hearing held on the resolution.
In Berne, the board heard at its April 10 meeting that the resolution did not go far enough. The board tabled its resolution in order to consider a change suggested by resident James Cooke that would recognize the sentiment of some in Berne that the SAFE Act infringes on their Second Amendment rights.
“I don’t necessarily agree with you,” Robert Altieri, a Knox resident, told the Berne Town Board on Wednesday. “At this point, you’ve done more than the town of Knox has done.”
Discussion of a town resolution on the SAFE Act began with applause at the Tuesday board meeting and ended with Councilman Nicholas Viscio shouting into the audience.
The 40 seats in the town-hall meeting room were filled, most of them by opponents to the SAFE Act who wanted stronger language in the town’s resolution. Towards the beginning of the meeting, Altieri submitted a copy of a resolution passed by the Westerlo Town Board last month that demanded a repeal of the SAFE Act and opposed “any legislation that would infringe upon the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
Dorfman was at the center of the discussion in Knox and said that calling the SAFE Act unconstitutional was not within the powers of the town board.
“Let’s assume everybody came to a public hearing and had the same position as you do, that doesn’t alter what the law is,” said Dorfman, addressing Altieri and others’ request that the board hear from more people. Dorfman said he cannot tell the board that every provision in the SAFE Act should be repealed.
“If you want an advisor to only tell you what you want to hear, then you’re not, in my opinion, getting good advice,” said Dorfman. He said the discussion at hand was expected last month, when a public hearing was held at the Albany County Legislature.
The entire discussion on the SAFE Act Tuesday night in Knox was held while a public hearing on an ordinance imposing a weight limit on Dutch Settlement Road was open.
“I, as a town board member here, would support exactly what all you people are seated here for,” Supervisor Michael Hammond told the audience, saying public comment at the state level was cut short in January. The audience applauded. “One of the reasons why we sit here is to listen to people that we have responsibilities for, that we would take due diligence and exercise our responsibilities for the people.”
Of the resolution proposed by Altieri, he said, “I haven’t read this sample resolution, but I came to this meeting prepared to do exactly this,” Hammond said of voting on the town’s resolution.
After Hammond offered the town’s resolution, Altieri asked that the board hold a public hearing on it. “I want to get this done now,” Hammond said, followed by soft laughter from the audience.
Lori Mithen, counsel to the Association of Towns, told The Enterprise that she has received dozens of resolutions enacted by towns supporting or opposing the SAFE Act, some on only parts of the law.
“I’m not personally aware of any case law or agency opinion that prohibits a public hearing or an informational discussion on a matter that’s not otherwise required to hold a public hearing,” Mithen said, speaking generally of towns in New York.
Following the unanimous vote on the resolution, comparisons were made to the other Hilltowns and numerous towns and counties statewide that have opposed the SAFE Act in various ways.
The latest Siena poll reported on March 11 that 56 percent of New Yorkers oppose repealing the SAFE Act and 40 percent support repeal; 38 percent of upstate respondents opposed repealing the act and 59 percent favored repeal. A repeal would require the governor’s signature.
Tom Cavanagh of Berne who has been at a number of Hilltown meetings, pushing for repeal of the SAFE Act, told the Knox board that a public hearing would allow the board to form a resolution that represents the opinion of its residents.
“I just want to say that not everybody in town agrees with this,” responded John Elberfeld, a Knox resident. (His letter to the editor is printed in this week’sEnterprise.)
Hammond said of the state legislature, “We’re urging them. What else can we do to them?”
Westerlo held a special meeting at the urging of audience members who attended its March board meeting, and passed a resolution. The resolution shared language with the proclamation signed by 13 Albany County legislators demanding a repeal of the SAFE Act and opposing any legislation that would infringe upon the right to bear arms. In Berne, the town board listened to comments during a public hearing on a local law and at a town board meeting. Rensselaerville held an informational meeting on a possible resolution to be voted on during its April 11 meeting.
Deborah Busch, a Republican county legislator, circulated the proclamation and has encouraged all town boards in the Hilltowns to pass similar resolutions. Her 39th District is in all four Hilltowns.
“I don’t believe that this resolution that you’ve read — I believe it’s very similar to what’s going on in Berne — it doesn’t address the unconstitutional elements that people are here to speak about,” Busch told the Knox board, following the vote, noting the Knox resolution did not call for a repeal.
Republican Travis Stevens, who represents the 31st county legislative district in Knox, East Berne, Guilderland and Altamont, attended the Knox meeting and had signed the county proclamation circulated by Busch.
Busch said she is part of a movement to have every town and county in the state support the repeal of the SAFE Act and that a group of supporters has been active in organizing and attending local meetings. With the message coming from enough towns and counties, she believes a repeal is likely.
“We are all residents of the Hilltowns and, I have to be honest with you, that was my campaign crew, so we have all stuck together, and my campaign crew is the Tea Party. They’re Tea Party individuals,” said Busch of a group of about eight people.
Busch told The Enterprise she has given her proclamation to State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, and to state executive and legislative offices. Tkaczyk is a Democrat as are all the members of the Knox Town Board, all the members of the Westerlo Town Board, and all but one of the members of the Berne Town Board. The Rensselaerville Town Board has one Republican, one Democrat, two Conservatives, and one independent.
Knox Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, when asked her opinion, said she was in favor of gun control, but on the board would listen to all views. Viscio said his opinion was not relevant and that he voted for the resolution based on the town attorney’s advice.
When a man in the gallery suggested that passing the town’s less aggressive resolution could keep board members from being re-elected, Viscio responded, at times shouting, saying no one had brought up the elementary-school shooting that sparked a national debate on gun control in December.
“This debate is much bigger than all of this,” said Viscio. “And for this board to go dancing off to the state with an opinion that matters squat, and you want to bring up discussions about all these state issues here. I understand your compassion for your rights.” For political motivation to be involved in how people respond to the shooting and deal with gun control, he said, is “disgusting.”
Hammond said he was not in favor of a repeal, pointing to a part in the law he agrees with that heightens criminal penalties for shooting law-enforcement agents. Many in the gallery got up and left, ending the talk.
With almost 40 people in the town hall on April 10, some had to stand as citizens began the meeting by calling the draft resolution weak.
Berne resident Nicholas Minute said the resolution “lacks backbone.” He said, “The board has not put forth any sort of formal position.”
Cavanagh, who submitted his own version of a resolution to the board at its March meeting, told Supervisor Kevin Crosier that Crosier had said then there would be a public hearing.
“This is not the way it should be done. You are elected by the people of the town of Berne,” said Cavanagh.
Councilman Joseph Golden noted there was a recording of the meeting and said he would be willing to listen to it.
“A public hearing would be no different than what just happened here,” said Town Clerk Patricia Favreau.
Berne resident Richard Ronconi said he is not in favor of repeal and that the recommendation for more public hearings is reasonable.
Cooke, who has served as chairman of the Berne Comprehensive Plan Committee, read from an e-mail he had sent to the town, asking for the board to consider acknowledging that there are Berne residents who view the SAFE Act as an infringement on their Second Amendment rights.
As the board prepared to vote on the resolution, Crosier spoke.
“I’m with you on this, guys. I get it,” he said.
William Rapoli, who sat against the wall, had spoken earlier of how the resolution was missing mention of the Second Amendment.
“Will, you and I shot trap together as kids,” said Crosier. He later spoke of the “horrific carnage” from gun violence he had seen as an Albany firefighter.
Crosier noted the 2,800 Berne residents represented by the board. He said he had spoken to state legislators who said they would be willing to come to a public meeting on the SAFE Act.
Golden said he agreed with what Cooke suggested, later calling it “the Cooke Amendment.”
“I just think we missed a step, and he pointed it out,” Golden said.
The board tabled the resolution so that Cooke can provide a paragraph to insert into the resolution, with his assertion that “a majority” of Berne residents view the SAFE Act as an infringement of their Second Amendment rights changed to something that cannot be counted, like “a number.”
The board will consider the change during its April 24 work meeting.
Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin, the board’s sole Republican, said she was surprised during the work meeting when the resolution she submitted weeks before was not discussed, though she voted for the one chosen.