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.Cold Spring Village logo

Ethical conduct

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:

Sec. 9.4

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.


Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Foley is the former managing editor of The Current and a partner in foleymyers communications in Northampton, Massachusetts.

6 replies on “Cold Spring Campaign Intensifies”

  1. Once again Mr. Greco hurls mud from a mole hill rather than giving clean, clear reason to support Mr. Bowman and Ms. Fadde. Why can’t both Mr. Henderson and Ms. Peehl sign a petition stating support for a candidate worthiness for appearing on a ballot? This is only a conflict of interest in minds narrowed by misinformation and deliberate misinterpretation.

  2. Ethics in municipal government is always a slippery slope. Our county, towns and even local governments all have their own codes of ethics. The main issue here seems to be the “appearance of impropriety” which is a rather broad standard on its face and which should should be looked at in the legal context of NYS Public Officers Law which is the statewide model.

    Without going into a dissertation, a big part of the ethics laws have to do with elected and appointed officials obtaining a financial benefit by virtue of the fact that they hold a public office. For example, you can’t use your public office for personal gain, such as rewarding a contract to a relative.

    Even though I’m a stickler when it comes to following the law and have filed several ethics complaints myself in Putnam Valley, I think it’s a stretch to suggest that public officials are prohibited from helping able candidates for office to get elected. This is a First Amendment right that everyone has, including public officials, and we would be hard put to find a precedent where the ethics law intrude on such established rights.

    As far as the current election — although I’m a non-resident and can’t vote, the outcome of the election will possibly have a dramatic impact on my Main Street business, and for what it’s worth, I support the BOFA team all the way.

    I love Cold Spring and am glad to have my shop here, but there are many things that need to be done and to be done right away. In my experience, Michael and Cathryn have been responsive to these needs and overall seem to have a good understanding of what the merchants are going through as we struggle with the dismal economy.

    Street lights, parking, sidewalks and other infrastructure must be improved or else the business / retail base will be further eroded.

    Based on my own research, it appears that there’s money available for street lights and it’s an issue I’ve often written about on these pages. I sincerely hope that whoever gets elected will work with the mayor and other board members to get the ball rolling this year so that the Village doesn’t have to shut down after dark. There are only a few weeks left till the vote; let’s not get distracted by a tempest in a teapot.

  3. The difference is Bowman/Fadde are not currently named in a pending lawsuit, or chairing a hearing in which they are named, as MacDonald is. The trustees would only be dealing with the matter if New York Supreme Court remands the case back to the village jurisdiction, and even then it would likely be remanded back to the ZBA.

    As we have previously clearly stated, should MacDonald be elected trustee, and should the matter come before the trustees, he should recuse himself from any actions and deliberations thereto. To date, MacDonald has made no clear statement of his position on this.

  4. These charges are baseless and anyone who knows the players or has common sense can see that. I don’t believe someone being named in an Article 78 lawsuit makes them incapable of fair and careful deliberation. Donald MacDonald stated his position in the article.

  5. Let’s talk ethics. Donald MacDonald had no business bringing the matter of whether his run for the office of Trustee would or would not be ethical or a conflict of interest before the Zoning Board of Appeals in the first place. No one was saying it was unethical or otherwise for him to hold the office of chairman of the ZBA. So what were members of that board weighing in on? Are they now the ethics board as well? To me it looks rather like MacDonald was misusing a public meeting about our appeal — an appeal that we paid $550 for the right to file. Once members had convened as per the agenda, he took advantage of the platform to solicit members’ support on a personal issue — support which ZBA members were not convened to give. I’d say that poses an ethical question right there, but it’s what we’ve come to expect from meetings conducted by MacDonald, which is exactly why we wrote what we did. By the way, we too consulted with a lawyer, but we didn’t ask the village to pay for it, though I believe the village has some sweeping ethical questions to deal with.

  6. It’s appropriate for the Village to take seriously allegations of wrong-doing by a village employee or volunteer appointee. They must be carefully considered by the Village Attorney to ensure the Village is not exposed to liability.

    The Village Attorney found recent accusations against the Zoning Board Chair baseless.

    It’s fortunate for the Village that Trustee Matt Francisco negotiated a retainer for the Village’s legal services, otherwise that legal counsel would be charged by the hour.

    Thank you, Matt, for saving the Village money in legal bills.

    Thank you, Donald MacDonald, for obtaining Village-protecting counsel before making public statements about these baseless accusations.

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