Town Board Criticizes Secrecy Law (Updated)

Philipstown also delays discussion of cell tower settlement

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The Philipstown Town Board on Thursday (July 11) criticized Putnam County legislators for approving a secrecy law and plans to hand off administration of a federal anti-poverty program to a private agency.

The board discussed the issues after Nancy Montgomery, a former board member who now represents Philipstown on the county Legislature, raised them during her periodic report.

The board delayed until Wednesday, July 24, further discussion of a proposed settlement with Verizon Wireless and Homeland Towers that would end a federal lawsuit over an application to construct a cell tower on Vineyard Road, off Route 9, that was denied by the town.

Confidentiality law

Montgomery cast the sole “no” vote on July 2 when the county Legislature decided, 7-1, to adopt a sweeping law to allow legislators, county employees and even consultants and contractors to mark documents “confidential.”

Although adopted by the Legislature, the resolution must be signed by County Executive MaryEllen Odell to become law. But first she must hold a public hearing, scheduled to occur in the county office building in Carmel in two sessions – at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. – on Wednesday, July 24.

The measure authorizes “any county officer or employee, outside legal counsel or consultant” to slap “confidential” on documents; it adds that communications by, to, or from the county Law Department, the Legislature’s attorney or a county “outside legal counsel or consultant shall be presumed to be confidential material even if not explicitly designated ‘confidential.’ ”

It further states that legislative records involving attorney-client privilege, “deliberative process privilege,” or work by lawyers might sometimes be released, but only if the entire Legislature agrees. (Unanimous votes are not usually required for legislative approvals.)

The legislators who supported the resolution said it was necessary to prevent access to personnel and law enforcement materials or to communications protected under attorney-client, as well as to pistol-permit applications and other items. However, the state Freedom of Information Law already exempts from disclosure sensitive law enforcement material and papers whose release would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Montgomery said that the July 24 public hearing is scheduled for a small conference room, which is “not conducive to democracy,” and that she wants it moved to a larger chamber.

“It’s just a shame the county is busy passing a secrecy law that’s in search of an issue,” said Supervisor Richard Shea. “They’re depriving the public of information. That seems to be the only intent.” He predicted the law “is never going to stand up” in court. “The first challenge, it will go down.”

Earlier this month, Shea called the measure “absurd” and a “waste of time” and money.

Government officials “are supposed to be more transparent” these days, not less, Councilor Michael Leonard remarked.

In a letter to Odell dated July 17, legal counsel for the New York News Publishers Association, of which The Current is a member, asked her not to sign the law, which, it argued, “violates both the letter and spirit” of the state Freedom of Information Law. It also noted that the state’s highest court “has consistently rejected attempts by local governments to create legislative loopholes” to open-records laws.

WIC program

Although the county’s funding agreement does not expire until fall 2020, Odell intends to shut down the county’s administration of the federal supplemental nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children by Oct. 1 and have the nonprofit Open Door Family Medical Centers provide the services at its Brewster clinic.

By a 2-1 vote on July 10, the Legislature’s three-member Personnel Committee sent the proposal to the full Legislature. Montgomery, a committee member, voted “no.”

The committee resolution backing WIC’s abolition said it runs a deficit, but Montgomery told the Philipstown Town Board that only occurs if the county’s calculation of WIC costs includes a vacant job. Transferring WIC to Brewster will make it more difficult to access and “is not going to serve the folks of Philipstown and Putnam Valley,” she said.

(Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson, who chairs the Personnel Committee, said only five of 915 county residents who utilize WIC live in Cold Spring.)

Shea wondered why the county could not open a WIC outlet at the Butterfield redevelopment in Cold Spring. “I thought programs like that would be coming here,” he said.