Assemblywoman gets belligerent queries on finances
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Putnam County Sheriff’s Department officers on Saturday morning (Feb. 2) arrested a Westchester County man who disrupted a public “town meeting” with New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef and, when asked to leave, refused to stop shouting out belligerent comments or deriding others in the room with such terms as “stooge” and “dog.”
Sheriff’s department personnel later identified the individual arrested as Edward Riley, who earlier in the meeting had refused to give his name to Philipstown.info. Galef said that Riley, a Croton resident, regularly comes to her forums. Riley and about two dozen other members of the public attended one of two meetings Galef held on Saturday at the Desmond-Fish Library, in Garrison.
The incidents leading to the arrest began several minutes into the hour-long question-and-answer session when Riley, one of a number of attendees who in turn asked questions, began pressing Galef for information on her total salary, per diem pay, staff budget, details of benefit plans, and other financial data related to her as a member of the State Assembly or her office aides. “You’ve been in office 20 years and you don’t know” the overall amount of money she gets from the Assembly, he said.
Galef responded that she gets $79,500 as a basic salary, like all State Assembly members, plus another $12,500 for committee work, but did not have the per diem information at her immediate disposition to add to the total. (Per diem payments also can differ from legislator to legislator or year to year, depending on days spent at the State Assembly.) She also said information on per diem stipends and similar data is available from the state, online and elsewhere.
Riley, voice increasingly loud, then told Galef, “Are you saying you don’t know what you get paid? You don’t know what you get paid!”
A woman — who also subsequently refused to identify herself to the news media — then stridently told Galef: “You still can’t answer the question” from Riley. “You’re telling me you can’t spit out of your mouth how much you get paid!”
Two or three other audience members then jumped in with questions in a similar vein, but Riley was the most vociferous, bringing up the issue of unfunded mandates, among other things. “You’ve been in office 30 years,” he shouted at Galef. “Welcome to the new world. You’ve been used to your supporters coming and asking soft questions” at such events. “You don’t know your salary so I don’t believe you know what unfunded mandates are.”
He cited other perceived problems, such as high-cost pensions for government employees, “and you’ve done nothing about it. Why don’t you resign?” he asked Galef.
At one stage, when audience member Mary Finger tried to say something, he accused her of being a “stooge.” When Galef’s staff asked Riley to leave, he refused, telling one to “shut up!” and using derogatory language.
Two members of the Cold Spring Police Department arrived. Riley refused to “step outside” or leave. “You don’t know what free speech is. I’m not going anywhere. This clown and your employees brought charges against me,” he yelled in Galef’s direction. “I’m not going anywhere!”
He remained in his seat as the meeting wound down and refused to speak with Philipstown.info. Shortly afterward, sheriff’s department officers, who had slipped into the back of the room, led him off in handcuffs.
Finger subsequently said that she had been the one who called the police. “You see it,” she said of disruptive behavior and abusive language, “and you’ve got to report it, or things escalate … and you get a ‘Columbine.’”
Other audience members said they had found Riley’s conduct improper and menacing.
Galef subsequently said some attendees had left during his tirade and others “said they were totally frightened. I deal with a diversity of opinion all the time,” she said. “That’s not the issue” — it was the way the opinions were delivered. “His disruption caused concern. It’s sad. But you have other people in the room who get very worried when something like that happens.”
She added that the police have been present at some of her meetings at times in the past and that now “we’re going to think about it with my other town meetings” going forward.
Other issues: state budget
When not interrupted by acrimony, the meeting covered an assortment of issues, including the state budget; underground fracturing of rocks to produce energy, or fracking; religious liberty; and gun rights.
“The state budget is over $4 billion, with a lot of points to it that we’re trying to digest, along with all the other issues” facing the state legislature, she said. Galef explained that the budget is supposed to be finalized by April 1 and that “this is the time to get your message out” if concerned about government finances. The economy is improving, but slowly, she said. In what some might find ironic, given public distaste for the mega-pay of many in the financial sector, she noted that “bonuses on Wall Street are starting up again. You may not like bonuses on Wall Street, but they give us a lot of money.”
She also noted that state government has been promoting consolidation, merging 24 printing operations into four and combining department human resources’ offices into one. “There’s been a lot of what you may call right-sizing in state government,” she said.
New York State is expected to make a decision soon on whether to allow fracking, a highly contentious proposition, and “I don’t know what the governor is going to do,” Galef said. “There’s been a lot of activity from the public about not having it take place” and some upstate communities once viewed as likely to welcome fracking are expressing reservations and rejecting it, she said.
Religious and gun rights
Another questioner, who refused to give his name, protested to Galef about having his tax money pay for birth control services under the new federal health care program or having to accept a proposed state law to keep abortion legal in New York if Roe v. Wade, the national Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, is itself overturned. “Why should I pay for having my fellow human beings killed?” he asked.
Galef said she supports Roe v. Wade and that many Americans back contraception and “think it should be part of health care.”
The questioner continued, complaining that religious liberty is threatened and asking “why is it OK in one context” when, in another (as he interpreted the law) “a person cannot even say a silent prayer in public school? I feel like I don’t have a choice.” He went on to question Galef about vouchers to give parents some financial help when sending children to non-public schools.
“I don’t support vouchers,” Galef answered. “There isn’t enough money for the public schools.”
A Marist College student, Robert Califano, objected to New York’s tighter new gun control law. “Why should I be denied the right to buy an assault rifle?” He claimed the Second Amendment when written assured the public that “we were able to have weapons on an equal basis with the government” and that muskets “were the assault weapons” of the 18th century. He also asked Galef: “Do you think the legislation that passed could have prevented Sandy Hook?” the massacre of young school children and faculty members in Connecticut.
“I think it could have,” Galef replied. “It’s not a panacea” but could curb gun violence, she suggested. Moreover, she told Califano, “I think in the long run you can still have your guns.”