Cold Spring Village Board Spars over Transcripts and Recordings from Volatile Meetings

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Contention over minutes and agendas, bubbling beneath the surface at the Cold Spring Village Board for weeks, erupted Tuesday (Aug. 10) over late additions to board minutes of May 25 and June 15, sessions marked by disputes over Village policy on the Butterfield Hospital site.
       At the May 25 meeting, Mayor Seth Gallagher clashed with Trustee Airinhos Serradas and Catharine Square, a member of the Special Board for a Comprehensive Plan, over efforts by the two to seek federal funding from Rep. John Hall for local government projects at the site. They scheduled a May 26 briefing — ultimately cancelled — with Hall’s staff. Gallagher complained that the pair, joined by another Special Board Member, Cathryn Fadde, and District 1 County Legislator Vincent Tamagna, had acted without the knowledge of either the full Village Board or the Special Board. Serradas defended their actions by saying time was of the essence in seeking federal support. Square accused the mayor of unprofessionalism, but also said that if she had somehow made missteps she apologized.
       Three weeks later, friction arose again when the Village Board listed possible facilities to be located at the old hospital property, should Putnam County purchase it.  Serradas and Hustis voted to place the village hall on the list and Gallagher and Trustee Bruce Campbell voted “no,” dooming the measure. But that vote superseded a tally taken moments earlier on which Campbell misunderstood the question and voted with his fellow trustees “to include the village hall moving to Butterfield.” Then he realized his error and the board redid the vote, producing the 2-2 split. Trustee J. Ralph Falloon was absent June 15.  
       At issue Aug. 10 was a bid by Hustis to expand the minutes of May 25 and June 15 to include audio recordings and transcripts of those meetings. According to Hustis, Serradas made both recordings “by and for the board” and Square prepared the June 15 transcript.  Serradas refused to say whether Square also transcribed the recording from the May 25 meeting — the one at which she argued with the mayor over her role in the unsanctioned overtures to Hall’s office. E-mails asking Hustis and Square about transcription of the May 25 recording produced no response.
       Serradas and Hustis also did not explain why, after the June 15 and May 25 meetings, Serradas did not immediately give his recordings to Village Clerk Mary Saari for transcription by her office and why Hustis waited until August to present the recordings, with transcripts, to the board. In fact, on June 8, Hustis asked the board to approve the May 25 minutes; his motion carried. Likewise, on July 13, he proposed board approval of the June 15 minutes, subject to later inclusion of a transcript after Gallagher had reviewed the original recording. This motion too passed. Gallagher said he did not receive the recording at that juncture.
       Hustis said Aug. 12 in an e-mail that he now had brought forth the transcriptions and recordings “since we were in a heated discussion in the May 25 meeting with a member of the community and a Special Board member, where there was such controversy as to the nature of a cancelled meeting regarding our County Legislator, Chairman Vincent Tamagna, and Congressman John Hall’s office, I felt it appropriate to have an addendum attached and recorded with the minutes, which is standard procedure. Also, in the June 15 meeting, then again there was substantial controversy in dealing with a vote that was taken and recalled by Mayor Gallagher without proper motion or notification. This again, I wanted a clear record of the occurrence and controversy to be recorded.”  
       Legislative bodies typically enjoy leeway to reconsider votes. In any case, in regard to the June 15 action, “we voted again before the vote was recorded,” Gallagher said on Aug. 13. “You wouldn’t want a minority to count as a majority because someone was confused. It shouldn’t even be an issue.”
       During Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted to assign Village Clerk Saari to compare the Serradas recordings with the transcripts to see if they match, before the board decides whether to place them in the record.  The board did not rehash details of the fractious May 25 and June 15 meetings but focused on the broader question of including verbatim transcripts in minutes as a general practice. 
       Citing New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) advice, Mayor Gallagher opposed inclusion of verbatim transcripts or using them to replace synopsis-style minutes, which summarize discussion and actions. “We don’t do verbatim minutes,” he said. At NYCOM, “they recommend very strongly against verbatim minutes. If you can’t summarize it, you can’t put it into words, then it probably shouldn’t be in the minutes.” For the dates in question, he said, “we approved minutes. There was no question about it at the time. So the synopsis was correct.”
       “I don’t believe we’ve ever kept verbatim minutes,” Village Attorney Stephen Gaba concurred. “Now, if there’s a particular statement that a board member would like to have put in verbatim, he can make a motion to have that particular statement read in, or submitted with the minutes separately,” with board agreement. But that procedure “is recommended to only be used if there’s something that’s really significant,” he said. Further more, he explained, such material must be sent to the village clerk; if she signs off on it, the board can choose to “incorporate it into the minutes — it becomes part of it” directly — or treat it as an addendum or supplement, as the board might do with a letter from someone.   
       Serradas said that in making the request about the recordings and transcripts, “I believe what Trustee Hustis was trying to bring to light is addressing some factual statements that were made. It’s something we feel should be in there. It reflects a lot of what was said; it reflects the tenor of the meeting. And I think not to include it is short-sighted.”
       Hustis pointed out that the June 15 minutes had not yet been posted online on the village website. “That is why I asked to put it on there [the agenda] for tonight, just for the approval of the minutes — to have that along with the rest of it so that the public can have access to the minutes,” he said.
       “I wasn’t at that meeting” of June 15, Falloon commented, before voting to have the clerk go over the Serradas recordings and the transcripts. “I can’t understand what difference it makes. But if putting this to rest is letting Mary [Saari] look at this and give it to us, I would like to vote `yes’ so we can put this behind us. I’m not voting that this happens every month, trust me.”
       “No, no, no, no, no,” Hustis assured him. “I mean, this is just for two particular issues. I agree that it should be put to rest.”