Village Board Sends Complaints to Fire Company Through Lawyer

Fire company refuses to consider any village communication that does not come from the full board

By Kevin E. Foley

Mayor Seth Gallagher and the Cold Spring trustees have followed their recent official letters to Cold Spring Fire Company No. 1 with yet another missive.  The latest letter details complaints to the Village Board about Fire Chief Chris Tobin’s purported use of his vehicle’s lights and siren in “non-emergency situations.” The mayor and trustees make up the board. The letter was sent to the fire company’s attorney, William Florence Jr., by Village Attorney Stephen Gaba after a unanimous board vote approving a formal resolution instructing him to do so last Tuesday night.  The letter from Gaba does not assert Village Board authority to review Chief Tobin’s actions; nor does it recommend an action or even ask for a reply. It simply asks the fire company attorney to pass the complaints on to the fire company.

On July 26 after conducting routine business, the Village Board moved to a closed session, asking the public and media to leave.  The board typically goes into closed session when conferring with counsel or discussing personnel matters. After subsequently inquiring about board actions and signing a freedom of information request, Philipstown.info obtained the resolution and the draft of the intended letter from the village clerk. According to the resolution document, Trustee Charles Hustis made the approval motion, seconded by Trustee Airinhos Serradas. Trustees J. Ralph Falloon, Bruce D. Campbell and Gallagher then all voted “yes.”  A second resolution, also passed unanimously, affirmed that all the previous letters, which sought meetings with and information about the fire company, were sent by the entire board.

The apparent reason for the formality of a lawyer-to-lawyer communication is the Village Board’s understanding that the fire company refuses to consider any village communication that does not come from the full board and the company’s preference that it be addressed to their lawyer. The fire company has said previously its position formed after Gallagher began using the village attorney (with the support of the board) to make inquiries of the company.

The complaints in the Village Board’s letter about Chief Tobin are not substantiated by any official investigation.  Of the three complaints, one comes unofficially from a police sergeant in the Village of Croton to Gallagher in December 2010, alleging incidents where lights and siren were used to escape traffic jams. The document states that this complaint had been passed to the fire company previously. The other two complaints of similar nature were from local residents who spoke with either Gallagher or Serradas. This latest public development in the tense relations between the village government and the fire company appears to have had a quieting effect on many involved. Gallagher (who is on vacation) and Fire Company President Mike Bowman did not respond to requests for comment; neither did Serradas.  Falloon said he had no comment.  Village officials and the fire company seemed taken aback that the correspondence was in the public domain, judging by the inquiries regarding how Philipstown.info had the resolution documents. However, in an email response to Philipstown.info, Stephen Gaba confirmed the information was public. It appears board members did not consider the possibility while adopting the resolution with Gaba.

Hustis was the only trustee to respond directly to questions about the letter.  In an email he wrote: “I voted to approve the resolution sending the letter – because I felt that we as a Village Board needed to respect the right of the fire company to legal counsel and that these reported incidents should be sent to the fire company for them to handle.  I believe the “reported incidents” are being used by Mayor Gallagher to further his case for village control of the fire company – I don’t think any good will come from this and the people of the village need to put pressure on the mayor to stop this madness and get back to the important issues at hand, namely infrastructure needs.”

Possible break-through
According to an email from Campbell, he and Falloon “met with representatives of the Cold Spring Fire Company (Saturday) to discuss some of the recent issues that have been plaguing both organizations.  The meeting was very positive in nature and ended with a better understanding of the issues.  Both the trustees and the representatives from the fire company will take the information back to their members for a possible resolution to the matters.”  According to Campbell the board discussed and agreed to this outreach to the fire company during the same closed session when it decided to send the letter. He added that Mayor Gallagher completely supports the outreach and reconciliation effort. In an earlier email when he first acknowledged the meeting, Campbell stated, “all issues related to Chief Tobin are being handled by the Cold Spring Fire Company Board.”

Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong contributed reporting to this story


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2 thoughts on “Village Board Sends Complaints to Fire Company Through Lawyer

  1. Stunning that these two reporters choose to fan the flames.

    Stnning that “executive session” discussion and material was released, my mistake “closed session”.

    So “closed session” means that the board can discuss what should be discussed in public without public participation.

    Who came up with that one? Who came up with “closed session”.

  2. What a gratifying relief to see strong commitments to less confrontational approaches now coming from many involved in our town’s effort to better understand, support, and improve volunteer emergency services. Can any other service be more accurately called ‘vital’?

    That’s why citizens were concerned when the discussion often seemed to head in the opposite direction. The facts are that despite disclaimers about peaceful intentions, inflammatory statements and acts were still happening, and surfacing just days ago. Now it’s impossible not to connect the dots and see the picture: embarrassment creates a huge incentive for constructive discussion and positive actions.

    The secret to less public embarrassment is exactly the same as to fewer fires: prevention. Our problems usually begin with ourselves. The surest way for anyone to avoid embarrassment over words and actions is not to say or do things that will be embarrassing when they become known. It works every time.

    A particularly useful rule when we act in some public capacity is to assume that things we say and do will sooner or later become known. We can all name people on much grander public stages than ours who didn’t. Might this be the last general rule of public life that can be applied on a totally non-partisan basis? It’s satisfying to see it beginning to work close to home.