Questions arise about public comment
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Putnam legislators on Tuesday (May 1) unanimously approved spending another $300,000 for the Butterfield senior center, which they officially dubbed the Friendship Center in Philipstown.
The twin 8-0 votes occurred at the Legislature’s formal monthly meeting in Carmel and followed recommendations in April by the Rules Committee on the name and by the Physical Services and Audit committees on the funding, which will be drawn from a reserve account.
“There’re a lot of surprises” in construction, said Legislator Carl Albano (R-Carmel). “Fortunately, we created a capital reserve fund for such surprises” and moving the $300,000 “has no fiscal impact.”
The money will help transform the former Lahey medical building into the senior center at the Butterfield redevelopment in Cold Spring.
After recent bids, a $134,000 gap remained between the $1.231 million budgeted for the senior center work and the $1.365 million low bid by Key Construction Services of Poughkeepsie, according to county documents. Legislature Chairman Joseph Castellano (R-Brewster), said allocating the $300,000 allows the county to accept the bid.
Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown, noted that $500,000 of the budget will come from the state through efforts by state Assembly Member Sandy Galef, and state Sen. Sue Serino, whose districts include Philipstown. “That took a big burden off taxpayers,” she said.
In a letter to the Legislature, County Executive MaryEllen Odell said she wants the “beautiful, state-of-the-art senior facility” to also accommodate county health department programs and other services “mostly available on the eastern side of the county” at present.
At the end of the meeting, during the public comment period, a Carmel resident wondered if there “is a cap on the amount you’re spending? Is there a point where people say … we refuse to pay any more money for the center?”
“We’re going to do our best not to spend all $300,000 of it,” Castellano replied.
However, he emphasized that the public comment period is only for someone to “tell us you like what we did or you don’t like what we did” during the meeting.
If someone has questions, “we can certainly have a conversation online,” or the person can “come to our committee meetings,” he said.
When a reporter also posed a question, he answered reluctantly but repeated his admonition. “Again, this is a question you can ask us before the meeting, after the meeting, at our committee meetings,” he said.
In the past, legislators have allowed questions during public comments.
Lynne Eckhardt, a member of Southeast’s Town Board, urged them to reconsider their current policy. “Tonight is a perfect example why you should have” questions, she said. “When reporters and other people want answers and this is your only televised meeting,” the comment period becomes “a really important time for you guys to be able to communicate with the public.”
The next day, Castellano clarified his stance in emails. “Certainly, from time to time, questions are asked at the public comment period and a legislator may jump in and answer,” he wrote. “I completely believe that government needs to be open and transparent but also believe we are governed by the rules that are in place to protect the process.”
He maintained that questions from the public are better addressed at committee meetings because department heads often attend these and legislators “can get their input or at least do the research” to provide answers.