Tempers Flare over Village Board procedures

 Contention over agendas and minutes erupts anew

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Dormant for seven months, contention over agendas and minutes erupted anew last week at the Cold Spring Village Board, which seemed destined to revisit the issue yet again in coming weeks. Last May, the mayor and trustees adopted a measure, proposed by Trustee Airinhos Serradas, stipulating that “when possible, items for the agenda and related materials should be given to the clerk the Friday before the meeting.” The action followed weeks of complaints by Serradas that the agendas contained too many detailed subjects with too few days to review them prior to a meeting. Even before the final vote that May evening, though, Serradas expressed qualms about his proposal, stating that the “when possible - phrasing still left loopholes that could allow last-minute items to sneak onto an agenda. On Dec. 21, he raised the issue once more and, as he had last spring, likewise objected to having the mayor take notes at the board’s informal workshop sessions.

Mayor and Serradas argue over procedures
“In the past, we’ve addressed the agenda and we’ve deviated from that,” Serradas alleged, Dec. 21, at the end of a long workshop whose audience had dwindled to a handful. “The agendas should come out on a Friday, not over the weekend and not ratified on a Monday with sub-ancillary documentation provided Monday, Tuesday.”

“Did you put this on the agenda?” Mayor Seth Gallagher asked. “It’s insanely ironic that you would just bring up at a meeting the fact that something’s not on the agenda which you didn’t put on the agenda. I was hoping you’d get tired of this. It’s like you bring this up every few months – procedural issue, procedural issue.” He said he updates agendas as matters develop. “We could just bring it up at the meeting. But we take an extra step, sending a notice out to let people know.”

“Monday night, Monday,” Serradas said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Gallagher continued. “It certainly gives more notice than you just gave right now.”

Serradas predicted that “you’re going to get a detailed, precious agenda item next week. Several. It’ll be outlined, in detail.” Gallagher reminded him that the board’s next meeting, slated for Jan. 4, “is full. We’ll have to see if there’s time.” The board has scheduled a review of the draft Comprehensive Plan on Jan. 4.

Serradas advanced to another concern: “We’ve discussed it over and over again. You insist on taking the minutes. I think, one, it’s inappropriate. There’s no transparency. There’s a cost issue,” involved as well, if the mayor takes notes and Village Clerk Mary Saari compiles the final draft of the resulting minutes. “At her salary range, we’re wasting taxpayer dollars,” Serradas claimed.

“You’re wasting taxpayer dollars,” Gallagher retorted. “The problem is not me taking notes. The problem is she [Saari] does not have enough time. Having someone else take notes is not really going to make it any easier for her. She is the person required by law to prepare minutes” and substituting another note-taker “will not substitute for her role.”

“But she’s not going to spend three hours doing them, either,” Serradas replied.

“Oh yes she will,” Gallagher said. “And she spends the most time on the minutes that you have problems with,” as when seeking verbatim treatment of a topic. Often too, Gallagher added, he himself handles the initial text of minutes, working from his set of notes. “I go in and I type it out. I do the minutes; I help prepare them for her. That’s not a problem.”

“It is a problem,” Serradas disagreed. “You shouldn’t be taking minutes. It’s questionable.”

“It’s not questionable,” Gallagher insisted. “Just because you say that doesn’t make the case.” He repeatedly urged Serradas to confer with the clerk. “If you have a problem, you need to talk to Mary and figure out a solution; you can do that.”

“I have spoken to Mary,” Serradas informed him. “She doesn’t want to take the workshop minutes [herself].”

Gallagher tried to end the argument. “We’ve gone over this [before]. And I’m really tired of talking to you about this. You refuse to understand.”

Serradas remonstrated. “Mayor Gallagher, I don’t refuse to understand. You refuse to comply with the majority of the world.”

“No, I refuse to comply with you. And you don’t like that,” Gallagher responded.

“It’s on the agenda; it will be on the agenda,” Serradas promised.

Trustee Charles Hustis requested that the mayor “not stack the agenda – e-mail like a lot of items on the agenda” for Jan. 4, “because we’re dealing with the Comprehensive Plan and we want to have enough time to have a healthy, civil debate among the five of us on the changes.”

“You’ve got to talk to Airinhos about that, if he wants to get into minutes again and this whole thing,” the mayor told him.

“You’ve got to be part of this, too,” Hustis said.

“I do; I don’t want to discuss this stuff,” Gallagher said.

Village auditor and RFP’s
Serradas also questioned the methods used by the village’s financial auditors, who recently provided the board with a draft analysis and reported the village in much better shape than a few years ago, when deficits occurred. This time, he and Gallagher came to a more tentative agreement.

The trustee pointed out that the Haldane school district sends out an RFP – request for proposals – for auditing services every three to five years, “just to keep everything fresh. Auditors can become stale, he said. “They can get so accustomed to seeing things they don’t really pick things up.” He explained that “one of the questions I asked the auditor was, `is there anything you would feel that we should improve or change?'” He said, -no-. That tells me you’re stale, and you’re too used to our system. I’m not disparaging them. I just think it’s prudent for us to do our due diligence and send out the RFP.”

“In their defense, compared to how it had been two years ago, the change is drastic, I mean as far as oversight and a bunch of different things,” the mayor observed. “But would you be willing to write something up, an RFP?”

Serradas assented. “I’ll work with Mary [Saari]. I don’t know what the village RFP process is.”

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