Candidates clash over petition signatures
By Kevin E. Foley
The Cold Spring Village Board election for two open trustee seats entered a heated phase over the past two weeks as two of the candidates, Michael Bowman and Cathryn Fadde, began criticizing their opponents, incumbent Trustee Matt Francisco and candidate Donald MacDonald, directly and indirectly. Bowman and Fadde, running as a team branded BOFA, have in interviews with PCNR writer Tim Greco alleged MacDonald’s campaign engaged in ethical misconduct. In concert with Barbara Scuccimarra, county legislator, they have also blamed the Village Board for the village’s problems with the postal service.
The charge of unethical conduct leveled at MacDonald and Trustee Stephanie Hawkins, who supports MacDonald and Francisco, is the more serious accusation as it implies both betrayal of sworn duty and possible violation of law.
The basic facts are that Hawkins asked a village couple to sign MacDonald’s petition to be on the March 18 ballot. Petition signatures are required to qualify for the ballot. Signing is a civic right and often a courtesy citizens render to individuals willing to serve in local government. But signatures do not signify support for the candidate, only affirmation of a right to be on the ballot.
Greco’s story and headline asked whether given MacDonald’s volunteer village position as chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals he should have the signatures of Paul Henderson and Beth Sigler on his petition, as they are involved in a long-running dispute before the ZBA. Greco stopped short of an outright charge of unethical conduct. Bowman and Fadde however did not. “Yes, it’s a complete conflict of interest and unethical,” Greco quoted Bowman as saying. For her part Fadde said, “I think it was inappropriate for Stephanie to ask them to sign a petition with Donald MacDonald’s name on it. As a member of the Board of Trustees she should not be soliciting signatures for or from any party with a matter of potential litigation before any village board.”
The Fadde and Bowman petitions contain the signature of Susan Peehl who is suing the ZBA and the Village Board over the matter in question. If elected either Bowman and/or Fadde would join Hawkins on the board dealing with the issue of Peehl’s lawsuit. After an inquiry from The Paper suggesting the situation was similar, Bowman acknowledged the Peehl signature but said only that it was “comparing apples to oranges.”
Donald MacDonald, who has served for 12 years on the ZBA, which hears cases wherein village residents require a zoning variance, responded in two ways. First he reported to the ZBA at a public meeting on Friday, Feb. 21, that he had asked the village attorney for an opinion on his conduct as it affects the ZBA. He reported: “The village attorney advises me there is no legal basis for this claim of conflict of interest, not even the appearance of conflict.” At that meeting the other members of the ZBA affirmed their support for MacDonald’s position.
Asked by The Paper for a response as a trustee candidate, MacDonald said in part: “As Zoning Board chair I do not forfeit my rights to participate fully in the democratic process, nor does this position deny the right of other residents to do the same.”
Referring to the matter before the ZBA, Paul Henderson, one of the signatories of MacDonald’s petition, said: “The idea that it precludes people from participating in democracy is absurd.” He said further that the BOFA charges displayed “a cynical attitude toward democracy.” Henderson also pointed out that his opponent in the ZBA dispute, Susan Peehl, signed the potential trustees’ petitions and wondered how that was different. “I was willing to sign the petition of anyone willing to serve the Cold Spring community,” he said.
“It is a completely baseless accusation that I have created a conflict of interest or engaged in an ethical breech. It’s without sense,” said Trustee Stephanie Hawkins. “No resident forfeits their right to participate in the democratic process,” she added.
Asked what his basis was for alleging unethical conduct Bowman pointed to two sections of the Village code cited here:
H. By his conduct give reasonable basis for the impression that any person can improperly influence him or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties, or that he is affected by the kinship, rank, position or influence of any party or person.
I. Pursue a course of conduct which will raise suspicion among the public that he is likely to be engaged in acts that are in violation of his trust.
Bowman did not explain how petition signatures would cause to happen what is described in the code as objectionable.
For his part Greco has made no secret through online postings of his desire to defeat Francisco and MacDonald.