Montgomery challenges ‘don’t ask’ policy
Putnam County legislators on Tuesday (Sept. 1) turned an otherwise routine end-of-summer session into a spirited clash over a question about questions.
The issue came up at the county Legislature’s formal monthly meeting, held via audio connection, when Legislator Nancy Montgomery criticized her colleagues’ habit of avoiding questions and discussion before voting on agenda items.
Montgomery, who represents Philipstown, is the only Democrat among eight Republicans.
The Legislature seeks to limit discussion and questions about draft laws, appointments and other measures to committee meetings, during which members approve items for consideration by the full Legislature at its formal monthly meetings. The Legislature has said in the past that the press and public also cannot ask questions during the public-comment period at the end of its monthly meetings.
The issue has been moot at meetings convened by audio connection because of COVID-19 restrictions; they have not included public-comment periods.
Montgomery questioned the no-questions policy while legislators prepared to vote on an appointment to the Home Improvement Board.
“How are the openings for these boards advertised?” the first-term legislator asked, explaining that a constituent wanted to know how to learn about vacancies.
“I believe all these appointments come as a recommendation from the county executive,” responded Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson.
Legislator Neal Sullivan, of Mahopac-Carmel, said that Montgomery should have raised the question at a committee meeting.
Montgomery replied that she had “been chastised before for asking questions at a full [formal monthly] meeting.” She said the policy appears to be that “we’re not supposed to ask questions” but “are just supposed to vote.”
“I don’t think it’s that at all,” Sullivan replied, but, rather, “that we like to give you a very detailed and correct answer.” He said legislators often don’t have all the information and must get it from the relevant county department.
Nacerino concurred that “if the question were posed beforehand, we could have an answer readily. And now we can’t,” when a vote looms.
Montgomery said the policy means that if questions come to mind after a committee meeting, a legislator “is out of luck.”
She continued to voice concern as the legislators prepared to vote on using $295,000 in federal grant money for data management. “What data are we collecting?” she asked, pointing out that part of a page of the explanatory backup materials was blacked out. (A second document — a memo from Finance Commissioner William Carlin — indicated the money could fund “traffic counts.”)
Legislator Carl Albano of Carmel, who chairs the Physical Services Committee, which handled the item, replied “I don’t have that answer” to Montgomery’s query, but promised to find out. In any case, he said, it involves “federal money coming in. I’d imagine it would be appropriate for the purpose it’s going to be used for.” He, too, held that “the best time” to raise questions is at committee meetings.
Sullivan said he “wasn’t chastising anybody” when he objected to having to field questions about agenda items shortly before votes. “That’s why we have the committee meetings, to ask the questions, or during the day,” he said. “We’re trying to get business done here.”
Montgomery shot back that “it is the time” and that “it’s not the time to tell me how to do my job. This is where I’m asking, and I’m going to continue to [do so]. I don’t have a rubber stamp.”
Once more, Sullivan objected. “We work to be prepared for these meetings” by asking questions in advance, getting answers and entering monthly meetings “fully prepared” and “ready to vote and do the people’s business,” he emphasized. “No one here is rubber-stamping anything.”
Despite the flare-ups, Montgomery joined her colleagues in unanimously approving the agenda items that prompted the debate. The legislators also unanimously approved allocation of grant funds to fingerprint staff members in the Children’s Advocacy Center in the county Department of Social Services.
As has occurred at other legislative sessions held by audio connection, background noise periodically distorted the sound quality, including when legislators were voting to adjourn. Nonetheless, one unidentified voice cut through the cacophony with an observation: “This is a circus!”