Legislators Again Attack Sheriff’s COVID-19 Policy

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Montgomery accuses colleagues of playing politics

Putnam County legislators on Monday discharged another fusillade against the Sheriff’s Department’s COVID-19 policies, fueling a debate portrayed either as pursuing answers to tough questions or playing politics a month before Election Day.

Meeting in Carmel on Sept. 27, the Legislature’s Personnel Committee grilled Sheriff Robert Langley, a Democrat seeking a second term. Eight of the nine legislators are Republicans; the ninth is Democrat Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley. 

Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson, a committee member, described Monday’s proceedings as an effort to learn “what was the criteria” Langley used when allowing staff to take paid COVID leave.

“If they had a direct exposure, they were put out” on leave, and “had to get testing before they could return to work,” Langley said. In the absence of a county policy, he said the department followed guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York State orders. 

In a memo he read aloud, the sheriff said that “there have been no COVID clusters among staff” and that the county jail is one of a few in the state and country “to not have a single inmate test positive.” 

Further, he said, “corrections officers and deputies came to work every day, 24/7, throughout this pandemic, to date, and never compromised” colleagues’ health “or the safety of the residents of Putnam County.” 

He termed it “a great insult” to be second-guessed.

In response, County Attorney Jennifer Bumgarner said that decisions about employee leaves were for county officials to make, not the sheriff. Because they involve “an interpretation of law,” she said she assumed she would be consulted “to determine whether an individual is entitled to time off paid by the county.” 

When the sheriff urged the county to issue a COVID-leave policy, Bumgarner replied that “you don’t need to see a policy.” Instead, she said, the sheriff should contact her or the personnel director for advice. Given the vagaries of COVID-19 and personal situations, she said, “drafting a policy covering everything is nearly impossible.”

Legislator Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac, who also serves on the Personnel Committee, criticized the sheriff for relying on CDC guidance, “which is not our guidelines.” He argued that the sheriff’s approach “would burden the taxpayers by paying people for being off and [creating] overtime” for their counterparts. “That’s why I have such a problem with the overtime.”

(In other business, the committee voted 2-1 to approve transfers to cover Sheriff Department overtime charges for March through August, with Sullivan voting “no.” He also was the lone “no” vote when the Protective Services Committee approved the transfers on Sept. 16.)

Legislator Paul Jonke of Southeast, who chairs the Personnel Committee, said that “a lot of money was spent on this leave” and “we want to make sure the money was spent in accordance with the law.”

Langley and Capt. Lisa Ortolano, a lawyer who handles civil affairs for the Sheriff’s Department, each noted that Putnam County had received $18 million in federal pandemic reimbursement. “We have the money to pay for this overtime,” Ortolano said.

Montgomery wondered “why we’re having this discussion now.” But then, she continued, “it’s election season. That’s possibly why.” She also said some legislators seem poised to accuse deputies of lying to claim paid leave.

Jonke cut her off. “This discussion is about communication and transparency,” he said. “You’re out of line. When you come up with a nonsense statement, I’m going to interrupt you.”

Sullivan, too, chastised her, and a shouting match ensued. 

“Talk about grandstanding!” Jonke said, berating Montgomery. 

“Yeah, talk about grandstanding!” Sullivan echoed. 

When the clamor quieted, Nacerino said: “I don’t know how it [leave policy] came onto the agenda. I certainly do not appreciate this dialogue.” Nonetheless, she declared, “in no way, shape or form is it any political ploy to understand the dynamics of what occurred” at the Sheriff’s Department.

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