Ethics Allegations Again Roil Village Board Meeting

Mayoral salary, shed, and ethics board at issue

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

In an encore to last month’s performance, Tuesday’s formal meeting of the Cold Spring Village Board ended with friction over the recent mayoral pay hike and demands for an investigation. As in the June 12 go-round, that of July 10 occurred in the public comment period. Frequent mayoral antagonists Michael Bowman and former Trustee Gordon Robertson again led the charge while the TV camera -– present only at formal monthly meetings -– rolled on, recording the scene. This time, though, a new critic joined in — Fair Street resident Susan Peehl, who accused the mayor and board of ethical lapses regarding her dispute with neighbors over a large backyard shed.

Before ending after 41 minutes, the argument encompassed elected and appointed officials’ personal public speaking rights, too.

Mayoral salary hike  

Bowman asked about follow-up to his letter, read last month, in which he objected to Gallagher’s raise and the board’s action on it, alleged a conflict of interest, and called for a board of ethics to investigate.

Trustee Bruce Campbell, who had proposed the raise (along with other budget changes) in April, said that he and the village clerk had conferred with the New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) in light of last month’s accusations. As a result, a top NYCOM attorney advised that “he didn’t see any conflict at all in the way we handled the whole situation,” Campbell said.

Adding that “I thought we addressed everything that night” last month, Trustee Matt Francisco emphasized that both Village Attorney Stephen Gaba and NYCOM had advised that nothing untoward had occurred. “I’m not even sure there still is an ethics question,” he said. “I don’t see the need” for further inquiry.

Stone Street Shed

Peehl entered the fray by stating that she and her husband have launched appeals of village procedures relating to construction of a shed at 14 Stone St., behind her backyard. In April, the village building inspector told the board that the shed owners “have a legal permit” for the construction and an assistant village attorney said that the timeframe for challenging it had expired.

However, the shed remained the subject of complaints by Peehl at the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals and Historic District Review Board.

Stone Street shed

The view from Peehl's backyard.

Peehl said Tuesday that “we’ve witnessed what we consider certainly inappropriate and very probably unethical behavior on the part of the mayor and other board members” on the issue. For instance, she said, at a June ZBA meeting, Gallagher “said the ZBA should rule against our application,” objecting to the shed.

Gallagher countered that “I specifically said that I was not speaking as mayor” that evening.

​Peehl acknowledged that Gallagher had cautioned that he spoke as a private resident. Nonetheless, she continued, “it is difficult if not impossible to imagine that the [ZBA] members could remain impartial” under the circumstances.

She also contended that Francisco and Kathleen Foley, a member of the Historic District Review Board, had said “that the ZBA should not grant us standing to be heard in our appeal” on the shed, although she admitted that Foley, too, had commented as a private resident, not an HDRB representative. Nonetheless, “the ZBA members’ objectivity could be impaired” by such interactions, Peehl said. She recommended the Village Board instruct all board members to “refrain from personal involvement in local public hearings in which they have no direct personal interest.”

Francisco said that his ZBA remarks had been focused on his belief that village procedures on the shed were correct. He also defended time limits on the filing of challenges. “What is important is that rule of law. It’s a rule that brings order to complaints and when they can be filed. And I think it’s important that we all understand the far-reaching ramifications of a decision that puts that aside,” Francisco said.

Peehl also questioned why an assistant village attorney had looked into the matter in April and the nature of village officials’ correspondence on it.  “Who directed” the lawyer’s review “and on what basis?  What were the e-mails and who got them?” she asked.

“We were acting on your e-mails to us with requests for assistance,” along with messages to the building inspector, Gallagher replied. “It’s an issue brought to us by you.”

Speaking out and fears of intimidation

Gallagher defended the right of board members to speak out as individuals. “The thing is that we live in a very small village, where we have several different roles,” he said. “I would say there is a direct, personal interest in the matter. When you live in a small village, you have a personal interest in everything.” At the ZBA, he repeated, “I made clear I was not speaking as mayor. Ethical behavior is one of the things that is most important to me. I think it’s unfortunate, what you’re doing when you leap to conclusions of ‘unethical.’”

Likewise, he went on, “it’s unfortunate, I think, that the situation continues to snowball. And I do not believe it’s good for the community. I also don’t believe it’s good for people who have a valid building permit to start a project to be asked to tear it down.”

Paul Henderson, the shed owner, said that after months of acrimony “my family feel intimidated. A place where we thought we were at home no longer feels like home. We have done everything we were told to do” in proceeding with the shed, but the ruckus continues, he said. “We feel our rights have been suppressed at the precedence of a minority. When this is finished I hope my family can recover and continue to feel and want to be members of this village.”

Peehl remarked that “I would wish ethical behavior would be conducted by all of us. We don’t try to blur the lines and gain public sympathy.”

Village board of ethics

Bowman interjected another call for a board of ethics.  “This is becoming a documented pattern of behavior,” he said. “There needs to be a board of ethics for this village board ​because the citizens should have a recourse other than an attorney on their own and spending out of pocket to defend their rights against what you’re doing.” He singled out Gallagher. “I’m completely appalled that you can just sit there and act like this is just OK. You’re defining what is ethical while you’re the one being accused.” He termed an ethics board “essential for this village. And it’s essential to call you on the carpet for following your own rules and regulations. I don’t understand why there’s a refusal” to establish one.

Former Trustee Robertson expressed similar views. “I’ve been to two consecutive meetings of the board and I’m concerned” that at both “we’re discussing the ethical behavior of a member of this board,” he said, urging the board to consider an ethics board.

Trustee J. Ralph Falloon suggested such a panel might be useful. “We have a code of ethics. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to have a board of ethics. Unfortunately, when somebody brings that charge we’re defending ourselves.” Through an outside board, “maybe there’s an avenue to verify what we’re saying” and defuse the situation, he proposed.

Both Gallagher and Village Attorney Gaba said an ethics board is not a permanent, standing board but something created solely to investigate a serious allegation after the Village Board determines it warrants further scrutiny. “What you don’t have is a sitting board which would accept requests from general members of the public,” Gaba explained.

“What you don’t want is a political witch-hunt, which basically this is,” Gallagher said. “This started even before I took office [as mayor] and it’s continued non-stop.”

“One of the most common methods of slurring somebody is to raise spurious ethical violations,” Gaba added. “If you want to bring down someone’s reputation, that’s the easiest way to go. You don’t want to open some sluice gate to allow anyone to go on a letter-writing campaign or set up petitions on the internet or what not and go before your board of ethics.”

Bowman, who posted an online petition against the mayor’s salary, retorted that “I take complete offense at what your attorney is saying.”

A long-time resident, Robertson blamed Gallagher for the rancor, saying that previously “this village was not as polarized as it’s been in the last six years.” (Gallagher first took office as a trustee in 2006.) “There’s become a division in this village which is absolutely wrong. It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with ethical behavior. You are the thing that has polarized this entire village,” he told Gallagher.

Robertson claimed that “the mayor lied to every single board member, including myself, in open meeting” in an undefined episode involving interviewing for a position. “You lied. You are a liar, Mr. Gallagher.”

Gallagher said such accusations demonstrated the need for decorum. “You don’t make accusations at meetings like that,” he said.

One thought on “Ethics Allegations Again Roil Village Board Meeting

  1. We were grateful to read Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong’s evenly handled account of proceedings in ‘Ethics Allegations Again Roil Village Board Meeting’. Indeed, maintaining peaceful relations in a small village, where neighbors live in near proximity, becomes a proving ground for ethical behavior and adherence to the law. With no surprises and no bent rules, we can each know exactly where we stand with respect to one another and with respect to our individual and due process rights. In fact, we would argue that it is within the context of a small village that the state of neighbor relations becomes the barometer for how ethical standards are being upheld by public officials.

    That said, we also appreciate the opportunity to clarify a couple of points:

    FIRST: Of the six property owners on Fair Street behind the 14 Stone Street new construction, all learned of the increased dimensions at the same time – over the weekend following February 24th, 2012 and the raising of the new wall framing. Five of these owners were immediately concerned with what they saw and four of those complained directly to the ZBA. Two of us filed appeals.

    SECOND: Having been asked by a number of villagers just what it is we’re doing with regard to the 14 Stone Street Shed, we offer the following excerpt from our original appeal application submitted to the ZBA on April 18th, 2012, which is in the public record and currently under deliberation as to its timeliness:

    “Reason for appeal:
    a. INTERPRETATION of the Village of Cold Spring Zoning Law or map is requested.
    (1) The reason the interpretation is sought is:
    A) The 14 Stone Street “replacement” shed is not a replacement, but falls squarely under the heading of New Construction by reason of its extended size — beyond the original footings and beyond the original rooflines 134-7 D (2);
    B) by reason of the original dilapidated shed’s discontinued use for more than two years 134-19 G;
    C) by reason of the fact that 100% of the original structure was demolished on February 23rd, 2012, 134-19 F, before any new walls had been replaced.
    D) The shed’s status as a pre-existing, non-conforming structure lapsed under the latter two provisions at which point it should have been referred for a variance per 134-20 B and 134-31, and the new construction treated as new construction, subject to the appropriate area lot coverage provisions of the Village of Cold Spring Zoning Law 134-17 A (1) (a) and (b)

    Note: It also appears that the footprint of the original non-conforming shed extended over the property-owner’s southern boundary. Now, with the new construction, it appears that that boundary has been further compromised.

    We understand that appealing an appeal that has never gone before the ZBA is highly unusual if not unprecedented. We do so as per Village of Cold Spring Zoning Law 134-30 and have been referred to you by the Building Inspector. We sincerely regret that this is the point we (as neighbors) have come to and believe that if all parties and procedures had been strictly compliant and aligned with village code we would not be in this regrettable position. With that in mind, what follows is our description of how this came about.

    Former Building Inspector, George Tompkins, active at the time of Paul Henderson and Beth Sigler’s application, stated clearly in his August 6th, 2008 denial of a building permit: (quoted here as was emphasized): “ALSO, BE ADVISED THAT IF YOU DEMOLISH THE EXISTING STRUCTURE COMPLETELY, YOU MUST RECEIVE A VARIANCE FROM THE ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS. (Note – if you remove and replace the walls one at a time no variance would be required)”

    As a result of this advice, Paul Henderson told us – his neighbors – that he was “instructed to build” the replacement shed one wall at a time. To accomplish this, he sawed off the bottom portions of the walls and left the remaining portions and roof suspended, extending the length of time required for construction…

    There were no public hearings. The one notification in the newspaper mentioning “(shed)” wouldn’t have piqued our interest — even if we had seen it — because we knew from Paul… that he was rebuilding his old shed – one wall at a time.

    We all endured the blue tarp covering the dilapidated and no longer-used structure for well over two and a half years… On February 23rd, 2012, when the walls and roof (and tarp) of the once-existing, long-suspended shed were entirely removed to expose an elevated concrete platform – at least 8 inches above grade and larger than the footing of the previously existing non-conforming shed – I [Susan Peehl] applauded Paul and asked about the replacement. It was then that he told me that it would be bigger. Bigger?

    On February 24th, the next day, much larger and taller walls began going up, aligning with what had once been the original roof edge on three sides (certainly not where the walls had been, as there had been no walls within at least 6 feet of our side but merely an overhanging roof). The fourth side, the only side not bordering other people’s properties, extended well beyond the original roof edge.

    It was during the raising of this wall-frame on the north side of the building that I first approached Paul Henderson to say that the walls were not replacements, but were much bigger. I asked, how could he say that he was replacing the existing walls? How could he say that he was replacing them one at a time? This was not like the original shed. Paul Henderson answered that he disagreed.

    The next day, a Saturday, as erection of walls continued, many other neighbors on Fair Street saw the new construction for the first time. That was the day Fred Norgaard began leaving messages around town for the Building Inspector, alerting him that something was seriously amiss, and it was in the following days, and then weeks, through numerous trips to the village offices, that we began piecing together how this situation had come about — how this new, relatively huge building in our backyards could possibly be thought of as a rebuilt existing shed.

    It seems that while the building was being called a replacement shed, with the understanding that it was to be built within the confines of the existing shed’s footprint and dimensions, the Building Inspector, George Tompkins, never actually requested the dimensions of the existing shed but relied on the survey that was presented to him by Paul Henderson and Beth Sigler. He did cite the need for the applicants to honor the code and advised on how that could be ensured – one wall at a time. So, without knowledge or acknowledgement of the need for variances, George Tompkins referred Paul Henderson and Beth Sigler on to the Historic District Review Board for approval of aesthetic elements and windows. (All materials including their application [were] included with this appeal. Note: Critical measurements are missing from the drawings.)

    A Certificate of Appropriateness was obtained and a building permit was issued. After a year, the building permit lapsed even as excavation under the tarp continued. Six months beyond the permit lapse, a new permit was re-issued by a new Building Inspector (current), William Bujarski, who decided NOT to refer the matter back to the HDRB, as per HDRB code (64-11 D 2), which also would have required another public notification. Oddly, new inspections were cited that had not been deemed necessary on the original permit… A year later, this re-issued permit also lapsed and was, once again, months afterwards, re-issued with no referral back to the HDRB and no public notification…

    All of this permit and referral business was unbeknownst to us and other neighboring property owners at the time. We [relied on our understanding] that [Paul] was rebuilding his existing shed, until we were otherwise visually notified when the new, much larger walls went up on February 24th, 2012…

    We feel this to be a most unfortunate appeal, because at numerous points leading up to this moment, had code been strictly adhered to, neighbors could have had the opportunity to give input to the project, alleviating what we now seem to have – some very distressing relationships in the back yard.

    So, as per Article IV, 134-30, we are in the uncomfortable position of complainers.”

    Thank you.
    Andrew Hall & Susan Peehl