By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
An otherwise uneventful Cold Spring Village Board workshop meeting Tuesday night (April 19) ended in a shouting match as three irate firefighters confronted an indignant mayor over keys to the firehouse, a building owned by the village and leased by Cold Spring Fire Company No. 1. During the 20-minute fracas, Mayor Seth Gallagher also revealed that the local bagpipe band and fire company have parted ways, with the band renamed as the Hudson Highlands Pipe Band. Gallagher founded the group in 2005 as the Cold Spring Fire Company Pipes and Drums and for years the band practiced on Monday evenings at the firehouse. “The pipe band won’t be practicing there anymore,” he said.
Conflict over the keys began April 5, when the fire company changed the locks to the building. That evening, Fire Chief Chris Tobin challenged Gallagher’s claim that the village government needs more than the single new key given to the village clerk. Gallagher wants three keys — one for the clerk, one for himself as mayor, and one for the police department. Accompanied by Chief Tobin and Vice President John Landolfi, CSFC President Michael Bowman brought up the question of the keys as the Village Board neared the end of its April 19 session. “I want the key issue put to rest,” he said.
Gallagher replied that “either you give me two keys or I’m going to make two copies. That’s it.”
“Do you think you can just go and make copies of the keys to the firehouse?” Landolfi asked.
“The police should have a key,” the mayor answered.
“Why should the police have a key?” countered Landolfi, a New York City police officer.
Gallagher replied that the local police have keys to all village-owned buildings. “We have a right to get in there,” he said of the firehouse. “If we want to have more than one key, we can have more than one.”
“It makes no sense,” Landolfi said to his colleagues. “We lease the building. He doesn’t have the right to go make keys.”
“You don’t make the rules of the fire company,” Tobin told Gallagher.
Before long, the disagreement had escalated into a high-decibel, continuous exchange, with the three firefighters shouting at the mayor simultaneously, one questioning: “Do other trustees sit there and let him [Gallagher] carry on like this?”
“Maybe they don’t want to get into this argument with you!” the mayor responded.
At least three times, voice moderated from his earlier angry pitch, Gallagher tried to calm the furor. “I’m not going to get into it. I’m not going to repeat these conversations,” he said at one stage. “I’m not going to continue. I’m done. I don’t like going around in circles,” he said at another. A third time he urged, “Time out, time out!” It was all to little avail.
“You’re acting like you’re God-almighty of the village,” Bowman asserted. “Is the village run by a board of five or a board of one?”
“Seth you act like you’re Jesus Christ or God-almighty or the pope or something!” Trustee Charles Hustis concurred. Citing village tenets for conduct during meetings, Gallagher cautioned Hustis to “refrain from personal comments.” Trustee Bruce Campbell said he declined to weigh in until he had read the firehouse lease.
“Can we try to have a civil discussion?” wondered Trustee Airinhos Serradas, known for his own frequently heated clashes with Gallagher.
“They don’t want to have a civil discussion,” Gallagher said.
Bagpipe band and fire company paths diverge
The pipe band became part of the dispute when Landolfi asked why Gallagher had attempted to enter the firehouse Monday evening, the night the pipe band practices. “What reason did the village need to enter the firehouse last night?”
“The Hudson Highland Pipe Band is not a function of the village,” Tobin said. “The Hudson Highlands Pipe Band was told to go to the [fire company] room rental committee.”
“We’re in there every Monday night” for band practice, Gallagher responded. “We have a standing arrangement.” However, he said, the pipe band would find alternate quarters, given the fire company’s attitude.
The fire fighters compared the firehouse to the Cold Spring Boat Club, another village government property. Gallagher said the analogy only would fit “if I wanted a key to the Boat Club and the Boat Club said ‘no.'” The firefighters also declared that every time the village seeks to use the firehouse, it must write a letter to the fire company requesting the space.
“We have a complete right” to enter the facility without such conditions, Gallagher reiterated. “Why don’t you guys read your own lease? I’ve been the mayor for two years, and this hadn’t been a problem” before.
Eventually the mayor steered the board’s attention to bill-paying. A couple of minutes later, the workshop ended, though the acrimony did not. The mayor’s stance “is the perfect example of an abuse of power,” Landolfi announced as the small audience left the room.
“You’re the mayor,” Fire Chief Tobin told Gallagher. “Would you like me to kneel down as you walk by, throw down flowers in front of you?”
Writing to the Village Board on April 12 on behalf of the fire company, Bowman said that they “voted to change the exterior locks to our company headquarters” and had numbered the 50 new keys, distributed to the CSFC members, with one for the village clerk. Before the change, he said, the same locks had remained in place for about 15 years, despite a turn-over in fire company membership. “As of now we have started new and have an accurate accounting of everyone who has a key,” he explained. The letter termed Gallagher’s references to the firehouse as a public building “misguided. The point is that our headquarters is not an `open space’ available at will but is subject to the same laws and limitations as any leased or rented space,” he wrote. He also said that “if the village would like to request additional keys, please do so in writing and the matter can be addressed with our company membership.” As well as accommodating some village committee meetings, the firehouse has long served as an alternate site for public forums too large for the small village hall rooms.
Lease discusses rights and duties
Dating from December 2009, the current lease between the fire company and village requires the fire company to ensure village government access to the firehouse “at all times during usual business hours.” But it also directs the fire company to “execute and comply with all laws, rules, orders, ordinances, and regulations at any time issued or in force “¦ applicable to the demised premises or to the tenant’s occupation thereof, of the federal, state, and local governments and of each and every department, bureau and official thereof”¦ .”
During follow-up conversations on Tuesday night and Wednesday, Gallagher told Philipstown.info that the CSFC had not asked for permission or notified the village before switching the locks. “No, they just changed them,” he said. Asked if this is a normal conduct for a tenant, he replied: “Who knows what’s normal?” He also said the firehouse is not really comparable to the Boat Club since, unlike the fire company, the Boat Club does not constitute a village department and is not used or maintained by the village government in the same capacity. He said the split between the fire company and the bagpipe band occurred shortly before village elections in March. The pipers “were associate members of the fire company and now we aren’t,” he said. The break could be beneficial to both groups, he added. “It allows us to keep track of our own money. It’s easier for them and for us.”
In an e-mail on Wednesday, Hustis suggested that “this can all be settled if Mayor Gallagher simply writes a letter to the fire company explaining the need for additional keys beyond the one given to the village by the fire company.” He said that “the firefighters are volunteers and if this situation gets out of hand quickly, there is that possibility that the volunteers can say that they quit and walk out of the fire company. God forbid if that happens; the village would have to turn around and try to find a way to fund a paid fire company and the residents don’t need this type of situation at all.”
Photo by L.S. Armstrong