A Nasty Catch 22 for Airmont

May 9, Airmont Board Meeting

Itís a wonder that Dave Snyder has been able to document sewer overflows during rainstorms in Airmont because there are times that you would swear that rain falls up in the Village. For a sense of how contradictory things have become, consider the recent meetings dealing with Hillside and zoning.

First thereís the Layne, Spampinato, Kugel capitulation back in January, contorting in all kinds of directions to avoid a lawsuit threatened by the Department of Justice. They went to such lengths to avoid public notice, they absolutely guaranteed the opposite resultóa lawsuit. It was filed last week by the Hillside Avenue Association.

Then there was that surreal movie of a meeting held by the Planning Board at which they were to designate themselves as the lead agency in the Hillside application. Mr. Cohen came into the packed room, counted heads, realized there were too many people to proceed legally, and so he did just that. He opened, held, and adjourned a one- or two-minute meeting and spent the rest of the evening yelling and being yelled at by the public. An ominous phrase hung in the air long after the cops came to clear the hall: "We are under great pressure from a lawsuit to proceed quickly on this." The same sentiment was expressed a number of times in tonightís monthly meeting of the Board: "We are under great pressure." You almost have the feeling someone woke up with a horseís head in his bed.

Holidome One

When the citizens showed up for tonightís meeting everyone knew the reason. Number 7 on the agenda read: "Discussion on amending RSH Zone to allow student housing." It was the reason the venue had to be changed from Village Hall to the larger meeting room. Downzoning, the same path initiated by Supervisor St. Lawrence and his Board-on-a-Leash that is devastating other areas of Ramapo. A more accurate description of the process is No-zoning for some and Zoning for the rest of us.

Well, this was to be the third time the public was going to be "heard" on the issue. The first time, a paper that was hung on the door told us to "go home", and the second time Mr. Cohen was last seen yelling in the midst of the din, "I canít hear you." The public arrived tonight at about eight oíclock, subdued and waiting, but you couldnít help remembering this was an Airmont meeting and who knew what to expect.

For all the fans of irony present, the "discussion" of Number 7 began with an argument among the trustees about why it was on the agenda. Joe Meyers explained that virtually none of the issues discussed in executive sessions (there have been several concerning this threatened lawsuit from the Feds) could be explained at this time. So if they couldnít talk about it, why did someone put it on the agenda?

Village Attorney Daniel Kraushaar said he was the one, and he said that no one else (especially the absent Mayor) had lobbied to include it. When pressed for a reason for its inclusion, he didnít have much of an explanation. Later the idea was floated that this move was to placate the Federal Attorneys who are threatening the Village with. . . who knows whatóthat was one of the things they couldnít discuss.

If that was the reason for including Number 7, it could have proved a tactical disaster. As Mr. Meyers pointed out, if public discussion included anything that the opposing attorneys could interpret as discriminatory, they could use the public record of the meeting in court against the Village. The lawsuit is about discrimination in fair housing, so any loose canons could have been turned back on the people. As it turned out, the discussion was impassioned, intelligent, and much of it relevant to questions of fairness and law.

Unfortunately, the Board didnít have much to say. To be fair, they couldnít. Question after question from the public elicited pained expressions and apologies for not being able to comment. That is, with one uncomfortable exception. Mr. Kraushaar seemed unusually impatient and dismissive, as though he wanted to keep reminding everyone, "Hey people, this is the Federal government, the Department of Justice." The discussion in the hallway at the end of the meeting included questions about his demeanor and take on the situation. Comments like, "Has this guy already given in?", and "Are there other lawyers working on this for us?" It did not go unnoticed that he was the only person sitting at the table who would not have to live with the consequences of this decision in his neighborhood.

The Catch

There was a promise by the Board that there will be time in the near future when a public meeting will be held airing all the issues surrounding the suit and its consequences. Until then, much of the discussion is only conjecture, but with the way some of the answers were framed tonight, there are outlines that seem pretty clear. There seems to be a very nasty Catch 22 at the heart of the proceeding. The threatened lawsuit is from the DOJ, and a Federal Court in Southern NY is handling the governmentís grievance.

Mr. Kraushaar explained that the other side did not have to prove discrimination in fact, but by doing nothing different from the way things are now, the residents and Village are guilty of the same effect as if they actively discriminated against the group suing. Sounds crazy, sure, but if thereís one thing that you must keep in mind about courts is that they have little to do with fairness and everything to do with the rule of law. Nine times out of ten the fault lies with legislators passing bills they donít even read.

So when the Village shows up in court, it might not be able to defend itself by announcing, "Your honor, I didnít do anything wrong." The first six words of that statement might be enough to convict everyone--Guilty by reason of residency.

Itís a sinister version of Joseph Hellerís Catch 22. Remember when his central character Captain Yossarian went to the squadron doctor to get out of flying any more combat missions. Doc told him thereís only one way he knew how to get out of flying. You have to be judged insane. Yossarian brightened, and said, "Great, certify me." And thatís when Doc Daneeka explained the Catch. If youíre crazy, you donít worry about flying dangerous missions. Someone trying to avoid them is obviously sane, so yes, there is a way out, but no, no one is going to be able to take it. Yossarian response was, "Thatís some catch." Doc nodded, "Best there is, Yossarian."

And so it looks like the DOJ has a Catch of its own that itís applying here and around the country. It reads something like: If you donít do anything to amend your actions, which, by the way, are perfectly legal viewed apart from this action, then you will be doing something illegal, and we will come down on you like a ton of bricks.

What can they do? The question was asked in the hallway outside the meeting, and although the Board knows clearly what the consequences will be of fighting this suit, nothing was said in the meeting. If itís impossible for you to imagine what the DOJ would look like in jackboots, just take a look at some of its past behavior.

The Department gets even (it canít be called meting out justice, not in this case with the Catch as its legal cause) by punishing the entire community (shutting off federal funds), fining public officials, and threatening even worse. Does it matter that these penalties are the result of a craven reverse discrimination? Nope. As you get closer to it, this thing even has some of the bad smell of the worst kind of quotasóat least in its demand for reparations.

A Catch of Their Own

Although nothing was resolved and few questions were answered, there was a sense at the end of the meeting that it was time for the next reversal. Since the whole community is about to be sentenced for doing nothing, you might as well do something. Judged guilty of discrimination by never discriminating against anyone, we need to become vocal about this issue. Everyone with a pencil needs to copy the list on the www.airmont.org page that has the directory of government officials and write, or phone each with your view on this lawsuit and RLUIPA and the Master Plan in Ramapo. Thatís St. Lawrence, Vanderhoef, Morahan, Gromack, Gilman, Pataki, Clinton, and Schumer, all of them. And if any of them or their reps tell you thereís nothing they can do, remind them youíre getting hammered in your own community and you did nothing, so youíre going to hammer back at those who choose to do nothing.

The bad thing about a Catch 22 is that it takes away any choice you might have. Voting, thankfully, has a way of returning that freedom. I think we can be sure Dave will be out there after the next rainstorm that floods the sewers, taking pictures and entering notes. For those who prefer not to stand out in the rain, they should be creating their own deluge of letters, e-mails, and phone calls.

Michael Castelluccio

Preserve Ramapo