Argument Erupts During Discussion Over Decorum

Legislator accuses colleagues of acting like royalty

Putnam County legislators’ efforts last week to promote “proper decorum” at their meetings produced anything but when shouting matches erupted. 

Before they concluded, Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley, had accused Republican colleagues of acting like “crowned” authorities – and got blasted, in turn, for allegedly producing “drama” and lobbing personal attacks. She is the only Democrat on the nine-member Legislature.

The topic landed on the Rules Committee agenda after Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson wrote to Legislator Neal Sullivan, who chairs the committee, asking for a refresher course on meeting decorum.

Nacerino elaborated at the April 15 meeting, held by audio connection because of the pandemic shutdown. “There are just too many meetings where legislators talk over one another, shout, make disparaging remarks and disrespect the authority of the chair,” she said.

The Legislature’s attorney, Robert Firriolo, outlined parliamentary procedure. After he ended, so did the decorum. 

Montgomery observed that, earlier in the session, Sullivan had allowed a non-legislator or two to comment on routine agenda items, an unusual occurrence. 

“We try to keep the meetings open to as many people [as possible] and I feel if people want to make a comment, they should be able to make a comment,” he replied.

“I greatly appreciate that,” Montgomery agreed, “because I think that is so important.” But she contrasted the practice with what, she said, are routine interruptions by other legislators whenever she speaks. “So let’s be clear here,” she said. “We all know this isn’t really about decorum” but about “discomfort with dissent. You don’t like the questions I ask. You don’t like that I pull back the curtain on expenses, mismanagement and favoritism” in county government. 

She accused her colleagues of wanting to silence views that “are not part of the script that you guys craft in your caucus” — a secret meeting where the Republicans confer before a public session. 

“If you were genuinely concerned about decorum, you would address the regularly occurring abusive language used toward me,” Montgomery said. 

Sullivan interrupted. “OK, now we’re going off base here.” 

Montgomery continued, alleging that Sullivan and Legislator Paul Jonke of Southeast “have told me to shut up, have called my input ‘stupid’ and said that it’s not relevant and shouted me down — like you are doing now.”

Again, Sullivan intervened. “We’re not doing that.” 

“My constituents see what’s happening here,” Montgomery persisted. “They appreciate the truth.”

“That’s enough!” Sullivan interjected, after reminding her that he chairs the committee. 

“You were not crowned king!” Montgomery retorted. “We’re not crowned here. We are elected.”

Jonke stepped in. “This is the kind of personal attack that’s really inappropriate,” he told Montgomery. “That’s why this discussion was put on the agenda for tonight.”

When Montgomery tried to reply, Jonke chided her: “There you go again. Can’t you stay quiet for three minutes?”

A heated exchange over who “had the floor” ensued, before Sullivan permitted Jonke to proceed.

Jonke said the incident exemplified “the drama that comes with Legislator Montgomery — every week,” often accompanied by “a personal attack. This is inappropriate. It’s offensive. 

“And I hope you learn from this,” he said to Montgomery.

Montgomery attempted to answer, but Sullivan broke in. “I’m sorry. We’re going to move on to the next topic.” 

“You think you are crowned,” Montgomery shot back.

“No, I’m the chair,” he said. 

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