By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Philipstown is considering a lawsuit against Putnam County to kill a secrecy law enacted last week.
Supervisor Richard Shea said during the monthly Town Board meeting on Aug. 1 that he is consulting the town attorney about filing an Article 78 lawsuit, which refers to the part of state civil law that allows appeals of decisions by municipal governments. He noted in an email on Thursday (Aug. 8) that the town has about four months to act, which allows enough “time to do this properly.”
Among other provisions, the new law 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.’ ”
Critics say the law violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the state Freedom of Information Law. Earlier rulings from state courts appear to make it unenforceable.
At the Aug. 1 meeting, Shea described the law, which the county Legislature approved on July 2 on a 7-1 vote, as “absurd.” The sole “no” vote was cast by Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley and is the only Democrat on the nine-member Legislature.
“The whole idea of local government, county government, is to move toward transparency,” Shea said. “And this ship of fools over there is moving in the opposite direction. What are they trying to hide?”
He said the town could argue in court that the confidentiality law harms town officials’ and residents’ “ability to access information” and hinders Montgomery’s efforts to assist constituents, an argument the legislator herself made at a public hearing in Carmel on July 24.
“If somebody doesn’t challenge it, this will just go through,” Shea said. “If they want to try this, we have to do something about it.”
Councilor Michael Leonard questioned how the law could comply with state “sunshine laws” that regulate government openness.
“It’s of great concern,” said Montgomery, who was at the meeting for her monthly report to the board on county activities. “It’s not good government.”
Odell criticized Montgomery in writing after the legislator tried, at the July 24 public hearing, to read a memo that had been stamped “confidential.” She had received it after seeking help from the Highway Department in responding to a Philipstown group’s question about highway signs.
“I assure you, there is nothing confidential in this memo,” Montgomery said. In a letter accompanying her signature on the law, Odell suggested that legislators who shared confidential material could be censured by their colleagues and that anyone who reveals “confidential” information could face an ethics board hearing.
Kathleen Foley, a Cold Spring resident, urged the Town Board on Aug. 1 to explore ways to prevent children from buying CBD oil-laced candy, which often resembles gummy candies, from local gas stations and shops.
“It’s everywhere,” Foley said. She said she does “not care if an adult over age 18 accesses it,” but fears its effects on children.
Shea agreed to look into whether the sales could be regulated. “Candy is candy and gummy worms with CBD are not for kids,” he said.
CBD, which stands for cannabidiol, is a chemical compound found in both hemp and marijuana. The 2018 federal Farm Bill legalized CBD extracted from hemp, which has very little THC, the ingredient that produces the high. CBD derived from marijuana remains illegal. The federal Food and Drug Administration has banned the sale if any food that has CBD unless it’s produced and sold in the same state. CBD products also cannot be marketed as dietary supplements.
Leonard joined Shea and Councilors John Van Tassel and Judith Farrell on Thursday (Aug. 8) at a special meeting to approve updated text in a settlement agreement with Homeland Towers and Verizon Wireless to end their lawsuit against the town for rejecting their application for a cellphone/wireless tower.
The settlement will allow the project to proceed on a parcel along Vineyard Road near the intersection of Routes 9 and 301.
The revision restored a provision on the appearance of the tower, which will be designed to resemble a fir tree. It states that the height of the branches will be consistent with the drawings in an appendix to accompany the agreement. A draft from early July had mentioned the length and height of the branches but the clause did not appear in the version the board approved on July 24.
“It was just a minor thing,” Shea said, but “if that wasn’t in there, we’re out of luck” should the tower developers want to change the look of the structure.
■ Shea said the Highway Department plans to pave sections of four roads soon: East Mountain Road North, from the dam to No. 431; East Mountain Road South, from No. 260 to Route 9; and Mountain Drive and the remainder of Aqueduct Road in Continental Village.
■ Leonard shared complaints from residents about conditions on heavily used Winston Road, which runs southeast from Route 9 in Continental Village and has a number of blind spots. He proposed the town install signs to warn drivers unaware of “how bad it is. I don’t know that I can come up with a road in town as bad as that, certainly not a main artery. I strongly recommended anyone in that area to not walk” on it, he said. “I’ve seen some close calls.”
■ The board presented Jamie Calimano, who graduated from Haldane High School in June, with a resolution commending her attainment of the Girl Scouts’ Gold Award, the organization’s highest honor.