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.
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.