Civil Contempt

 

November 4, 2015 Ramapo Town Hall: 7:06 PM  It was the first official act of Supervisor St. Lawrence following his re-election the day before. The meeting time had been changed, but it didn't matter, it was not an optimal day for a big public turnout, the day after an election. Most certainly, the bad timing was intentional, and it worked--only a few members of the public were there along with a small group of students from Suffern High School, there to fulfill a requirement for their Government class.
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The purpose of the meeting was to invite public comment on the proposed 2016 Budget for the Town of Ramapo. The Town's recent financial record has resembled a slow stroll toward an economic Chernobyl. In 2012, the New York State Comptroller declared that the Town of Ramapo was the most fiscally stressed township in the State. At that time, Ramapo had racked up a worst-in-the-state rating of 70.8% for fiscal stress. With a little due diligence from St. Lawrence and his board, that number has gotten even worse this year with the most recent jump to 77.1% (the higher the number, the greater the stress.)

 

The proposed budget for 2016 then is a very big deal. It should contain the economic blueprint for some way out of this mess. And the public should have the opportunity to provide input, offer suggestions, and that’s why state law requires this opportunity for the public to speak out and ask questions. Instead, what transpired at that November 5 meeting offered a clear measure of the contempt with which this board and supervisor hold the taxpayers of Ramapo. What happened also appears to be a violation of public law.

 

Here’s what went down that Wednesday evening, the day after the election:

 

7:06 pm The session was opened for Public Comment about the proposed 2016 Ramapo Budget.

 

Robert Romanowski came to the podium, identified himself, and then asked the question:  How can I speak about the budget when I FOILed a copy of the budget on October 6 and still haven’t received it?

 

St. Lawrence’s reply was succinct: This is a public hearing. We’re here to listen to the public not to answer questions.

 

It’s important to note that the proposed budget for 2016 also has not been made available on the Town of Ramapo website. Romanowski’s request for a copy of a document that is a public record and that does exist in a digital format that could be sent via email, is mandated by New York State law. That law requires that the request be fulfilled within five business days. That would present no problem with a PDF file that could be emailed, or even burned as a copy on a CD. No problem, that is, unless someone had decided they would prefer the public not see these numbers until the budget could be passed by the board or until the public comment period could be closed, effectively silencing any criticism and concealing any problems or errors. It should be noted that last year at the public hearing for the proposed 2015 budget a number of serious mathematical errors in the draft budget were pointed out to the Supervisor and Board.

 

Another speaker to get up during Wednesday’s “public hearing” portion of the meeting was Bill Weber. He opened his comments with the same question asked by Mr. Romanowski. He told the Supervisor and Board that he also had submitted a FOIL request for the proposed budget with detail, and he did not receive it. He then pointedly asked, When will I receive it? No response. He then asked again, the same silence, and then a third time, When will I receive the proposed budget with detail?

 

Nothing. Weber then turned to Board Member Daniel Friedman and asked him for an explanation for the reluctance of the Town to provide the proposed budget to the public. Mr. Friedman, you might recall, has recently had his car decoupled from the St. Lawrence train, so it was not surprising that he then did what no other member of the board would do. He asked Chris Sampson, the Town Clerk, why he didn’t make the budget document available to Mr. Weber.

 

At this point, St. Lawrence got disturbed and finally addressed Weber’s question. “Do you really want a copy now?” he asked. He then told Sampson to go across the hall to the Clerk’s Office and get a copy for him.

 

So that you understand some of the hidden motives here, consider the following. William Weber is a CPA with expertise in auditing and forensic accounting. He was also a candidate running for a seat on the Town Board. He submitted a FOIL request for the “preliminary budget” on Oct. 16 and was told that it wasn’t available yet. There was a “tentative budget” document that they might have provided him, but they didn’t. When Chris Sampson returned from his office across the hall and gave Weber a copy of the “preliminary budget” there was an interesting time stamp on the document. Here’s what the cover page looked like:

 

 

Notice the official time stamp on the left side of the page. The Town Clerk had this document in his possession at 4:50 the afternoon of October 29. Since drafting an email takes only a few minutes, Sampson could have delivered the preliminary budget to Weber, Romanowski and any others who had requested it that day, Thursday. Or the next, or the following Monday, or on the day of the election, or even on the day of the board meeting when the town was supposed to listen to public comments about what’s in the budget. Alternatively, he could have taken a few minutes on Thursday, six days before the scheduled public hearing, to have the document put up on the website, thereby preventing any further delay. Chris Sampson did not hand over the budget to Weber until St. Lawrence ordered him to, the night of the meeting, and only after Daniel Friedman goaded the two into trying to create an appearance of fulfilling their legal obligations. Today is Tuesday, November 10, and Romanowski still has not received a material response to his FOIL request for the budget filed more than a month ago, and the Budget is still not up on the Ramapo Town website. 

 

It apparently didn’t occur to the Supervisor and Board that a reasonable course to take at this moment when a copy of the budget was finally surrendered to Bill Weber, would be to keep the public hearing portion of the meeting open and carry it over to a subsequent meeting to allow the public time to review what Sampson had kept concealed from them. Of course, that didn’t happen.                                               

 

The law requires this meeting as part of the process for creating a town budget for the next fiscal year. Its purpose, obviously, is to provide an open airing of opinions involving the town officials and the public in a transparent, collaborative effort to solve the serious economic problems and long-term debt in Town government. Unfortunately, that kind of democratic process often gets chewed up in the kind of politics conducted at Ramapo Town Hall.

 

The last speaker, Airmont Trustee Ralph Bracco got up and told the Supervisor and Board that the Village of Airmont makes the budget available to the residents, gives them proper notice of when the meeting for public comment will be, and has copies of the budget available at the public meeting. St. Lawrence’s response to Bracco’s admonition was a childishly sarcastic, That’s a great idea.

 

Here specifically is what Bracco was talking about:

  

 

I received a copy of this email on November 5, a week and a half before Airmont’s public meeting. And no FOIL request was needed because the preliminary budget was already posted on the Airmont website. And there is also included in this letter, an invitation to actually ask questions of the mayor and the board about the budget. I cannot recall how many times over the years I have heard St. Lawrence respond to a question at a board meeting with “We are not here to answer questions.”

 

We would like to post highlights of this “public hearing” for those who might not believe that the supervisor and his board could display this kind of contempt for the public, but for some unstated reason, there was no video recording made of the meeting that night. Usually, the glass booth in the back of the room is occupied by a videographer who records town board proceedings. Afterwards, the public can FOIL a copy of the video, as we have often done in the past. Not Wednesday—Sorry, there’s no video record available for the public, no FOIL responses for the public participants, and no reasons needed to be given. “The Supervisor and Board were not there to answer questions.”

 

There was, however, an ominous hint of what’s going to happen next to the taxpayers in an item under the new business portion of the meeting, after they closed the public hearing. A resolution was passed to schedule, on November 19, a Public Hearing to override the New York State Tax Cap. Unfortunately, if you want to attend you might have to get time off at work. The meeting is scheduled for 10 am. So what do you think about the likelihood of this group cracking the tax cap at this meeting?

 

A Sad Public Display

At the meeting last Wednesday night there was a group of Suffern students from Mr. Callahan’s Government class. They were there to observe how a participatory democracy operates. What they got to see was a meeting that was supposed to offer a platform for informed public comment on the new budget, a Town Clerk withholding the material to be commented on, and a Supervisor impatiently asking the participants to sit down and stop asking questions. The lesson actually delivered was about what happens when the democratic process is subjected to the machinations of a corrupt local government. The result—a very bad smell throughout the entire room and a supervisor smiling, asking if any of the students wanted to have their attendance sheets signed.

 

Hopefully, in the not too distant future, one or two of the currently interested federal agencies will offer these same students a different lesson on the inverse relationship that exists between arrogance and intelligence.

 

Michael Castelluccio

Preserve Ramapo

 

Note: We have referred the conduct of the supervisor and board regarding the legality of the public hearing portion of the budget process to the Examiner for the New York State Comptroller’s Office and several others.