Mayor, Trustee Clash over Lawyer Bills for Comprehensive Plan

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The long-simmering antagonism between Mayor Seth Gallagher Tuesday and Trustee Airinhos Serradas flared openly again last Tuesday — this time over legal bills — during the Cold Spring Village Board’s formal monthly meeting.
       As he had on in a preliminary bout on Sept. 28, Serradas objected to payment from general village funds of bills for legal advice to the Special Board for a Comprehensive Plan-Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan (LWRP), otherwise known as the Special Board. On Sept. 29 the Special Board released its 89-page draft of a detailed new “master plan” for the village, covering land use, economic development, preservation of village character and historical assets, the Hudson Riverfront, and other topics. Serradas contends that legal-counsel bills incurred during the drafting should be charged to the Special Board budget. On Sept. 28, Gallagher explained that costs of legal advice given by Village Attorney Stephen Gaba to advisory panels are never assigned to them but paid from a budget category covering legal fees.
       Last Tuesday (Oct. 12), the mayor asked Village Accountant Ellen Mageean and Gaba to comment as well. Mageean said that New York State law tells villages how to assign and pay bills, ensuring comparability from village to village. “We have it broken out into two separate” budget listings, she said. “We have our `attorney, contractual’ which is our general [Village] Board business. And then we have `attorney, special’ which is any other, for any of the boards — Zoning Board, Planning Board” and the rest. Legal fees they generate “would all go into the `attorney, special’ line item,” she said. Gaba agreed and emphasized that charging fees to a specific committee, like the Special Board, “is really not the way that it works. ”
       Serradas responded that the question he wanted on the Oct. 12 agenda “is not what’s been represented here.” He read what he had sought: “’Open discussion of all legal invoices billed and attributable to Comprehensive Plan Special Board- LWRP that have been paid out of the Village of Cold Spring 2009-2010 legal budget and the 2010-2011 Village of Cold Spring legal budget that has not been charged back to the Comprehensive Plan Special Budget in either the 2009-2010 budget and the 2010-2011 Budget — incurred by Village trustees including the mayor, chair or any party related to the Comprehensive Plan Special Board-LWRP.'” The agenda condensed those 78 words to 6:  “explanation of breakdown of attorney billings.” If the Special Board gets legal advice, “what I don’t understand is why this is not being levied or charged back to the Comprehensive Plan,” Serradas said. “There’s a set budget that’s there.”
       When a promised $50,000 state grant to assist with the Special Board’s work got postponed indefinitely last winter, the Village Board stepped in with $10,000 for fiscal 2009-10 and $11,000 for fiscal 2010-11. However, the $50,000 grant now seems to be working its way out of the state finances logjam; thus the village could ostensibly recoup some of its $21,000 outlay. “I think your questions stem from a misunderstanding of how things work,” Gallagher told Serradas on Tuesday. “We can’t bill things back. You can’t bill an attorney fee to the Special Board line. You can’t bill an attorney fee to the ZBA line.” Other departments and boards “do have budgets of a decent amount and they all work the same way” as the Special Board, he said.
       Serradas responded that by paying Special Board attorney bills out of village legal funds, “you’ve upped their budget. The village is eating up this cost and I don’t think it should be.” He claimed that cumulatively Special Board legal bills exceed $3,400. Gallagher replied that past legal advice to the Zoning Board of Appeals, or ZBA, “has amounted to, probably, $100,000, “while the Special Board’s bills have been modest. “It really does stem from a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to understand,” he told Serradas. “We keep explaining that in no department does it ever get billed back or added to a budget. You just can’t do that legally.”
       “I just question why there are questions to our village attorney regarding text messaging, procedural conflict of interest, open-meetings law,” Serradas said. “Why are we funding this?” On Sept. 28, he similarly questioned Special Board queries to Gaba about room taxes and the Cold Spring Boat Club, a focus of state plans to clean up pollution left by 19th-century industry on the site. Gallagher reminded Serradas that the Village Board — mayor and trustees — sign off on all lawyer invoices. “When we approved the bills, we said `yes, those are legitimate expenses.'”  He told Serradas that if a trustee chooses to go over each bill in detail, “you’re certainly welcome to do that “¦ I’m not sure to what effect. I think you should also consider your own expenses that you incur with the village attorney because I think it’s basically the same thing.”
       “My expenses are inquiring,” Serradas retorted, describing it as “disturbing” to see that Gallagher had asked Gaba to weigh in on such matters.
       “I guess the reason that I asked for an opinion from Steve is that when I explained it to you, you refused to understand,” Gallagher said. “That’s why I asked for the opinions of others whose opinions I hope you will accept. We’re going to move on, because it’s really rather pointless” to argue. With that, he introduced the next agenda item.
       During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, resident Thomas Ambrose commended the Comprehensive Plan effort. “The Special Board’s diligent, purely voluntary work on the Comprehensive Plan, which is necessary for this town to move forward in the next decade or two decades, has been an incredible asset as well as a great savings to the town,” Ambrose said. He noted that villages often “spend thousands, ten thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in obtaining a draft comprehensive plan through use of outside consultants” and similar resources. In Cold Spring, ” the relatively small cost incurred by the work of this all-volunteer board, I think, should be included in any kind of consideration of whatever taxpayer burden it was in regard to getting this Comprehensive Plan.”
       “Definitely,” Gallagher concurred. “The Town [of Philipstown] spent $250,000 or something — I’m not sure exactly how much, a serious amount of money — for their plan. I think we should be very happy that we really got a lot of good work for not a whole lot of money. They [Special Board members] did much of the work themselves.”