Spirit of cooperation, not conflict, emerges from behind closed doors
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
After years of often testy public exchanges the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company leaders and the Philipstown Town Board gathered Wednesday night (Sept. 18) behind closed doors, with high-powered lawyers on both sides, and emerged to announce a new sense of cooperation.
The entire Town Board – Supervisor Richard Shea and Councilors John Van Tassel, Nancy Montgomery, Dave Merandy, and Betty Budney – joined by attorney and firefighter Mark Butler, conferred with GVFC Chief Bill Rimm and President Betsy Calhoun, accompanied by their lawyer, Terry Hannigan, of Albany.
As reasons for holding the conversation in private, Shea and Butler cited contract and budget matters. “We’re going to go into executive session to discuss the contract,” Shea said at the onset. “We have just a couple of things in the contract” to go over. “And then we’ll come back out and we can go over things out here.”
The news took the small audience by surprise. Posted on the town website before the meeting, the Town Board agenda listed the talk with the fire company as a routine item, with no hint of an executive session.
Butler said that the New York Open Meetings Law allows contract negotiations to occur in private and with the Garrison contract expiring and linked to budget preparation, “this is the time to do the negotiations. The [state] Legislature has permitted the opportunity to have contract negotiations in an executive session for a number of reasons: to protect price, to protect service, to protect terms,” he added. “That’s what we intend this evening.”
Based in Williamsville, N.Y., Butler was not a new face at a Town Board meeting. In November 2010, a few months before the town conducted the controversial Graner study, he presided at a forum on the implications of consolidation of Philipstown’s four fire departments into a single town-wide district.
Typically, the Town Board works on the yearly budget in the autumn and approves it in November. In December, it usually adopts new contracts with the fire companies that cover various areas of the town.
Garrison fire company budget and spending practices have sparked conflict between Garrison firefighters and the Town Board and some residents; criticism, and in some cases antagonized debate, took place at Town Board meetings earlier this year.
All that may be over, both sides indicated when Wednesday’s executive session concluded.
“We did have a very productive discussion,” Shea said. “I think that what will come out of this ultimately is just a lot better communication – something we’ve worked on and had success in. But I think this is going to open up a whole new conduit for that. I think tonight there were a lot of things aired out. And going into the contract I think we’re going to be in a much, much better condition or position to work together and to understand we both have needs, we have mandates that we have to meet with the state, things like that. So I think it was nothing but positive.” Going forward, he pledged, “We’ll be in close contact.”
Calhoun, who last April called Town Board questioning of GVFC finances “intolerable,” echoed Shea.
“I want to concur, absolutely,” she said. “I’m very encouraged. I think I felt more support from the Town Board than I had ever expected. We have a lot of responsibilities that haven’t been met adequately. I’m quite sure that we can [meet them].” She also praised the board members for “being generous with your time and your thoughts.”
Shea returned the compliment. “In generosity of time, no one tops the volunteers in town,” he said. Other board members also extended their thanks.
The sudden recourse to executive session led to audience speculation about the validity of the move.
New York’s Open Meetings Law does not apply to several topics, among them “collective negotiations” with public employees, “matters made confidential by federal or state law,” and “discussions concerning matters that might be made confidential under other provisions of law,” according to the Committee on Open Government’s guide to open-government laws.
The state Freedom of Information Law exempts from revelation records that “would, if disclosed, impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations.” The federal Open Meetings Law also appears to offer leeway, allowing government bodies to keep part of a meeting private if premature disclosure threatens “to significantly frustrate implementation of a proposed agency action.”