The Awful Price of Independence in Ramapo

 

 

Tim Cronin’s house is an 1840s farmhouse on the corner of Viola and Spook Rock Road. An ideal location because Tim worked at the Golf Course, virtually across the street. It’s also an ideal location for lawn signs, and that turned out to be very unfortunate.

 

Tim spent 10 ½  years tending the greens and fairways of the Spook Rock Golf Course. But more than that, he also sculpted the light and space on the course by removing hundreds of trees. It was not part of his job description, but it was one of the skills he brought with him. It was more dangerous than his usual duties, but with the kind of pride he took in his work, it was something he wanted to do.

 

When Tim first came to the job he had “some anticipation of growth within.” With a starting salary in the low twenties, it was not the money that first drew him. It was working outdoors, being able to grow, and seeing the difference he could make with results that would be visible to everyone.

 

He went out of his way to take a pesticide course, which he paid for himself. The credentials were important. And in his fourth year, he signed into a Professional Golf Course Management Program at Rutgers University. There were two 10-week sessions, and over two years he spent the 20 weeks away from home to complete the certification. The town wouldn’t pay for the program. Tim explains, “The only thing the town did for me was to allow me to take 10 weeks off, my own time. They didn’t give me any time. And I paid for it myself.” He paid for the tuition and fees as well as living expenses and completed the certification over two years.

 

Meanwhile, the course was beginning to reflect new patterns of shade and openness as Tim was making a difference.

 

During his seventh year at Spook Rock, Stony Point was about to open its golf course, and Tim was approached by Joe Smyth who offered him the position of Assistant Greenskeeper at the new course. When Tim’s boss, Dan Madar was told about the offer, Tim was offered a promotion to the same position, assistant greenskeeper, at Spook Rock. He decided to take the promotion and stay put in Ramapo.

 

Tim Cronin understands the value of an individual, and you can tell that by the way he leads his life. Not that any of this comes as an entitlement. It’s something you prove with your work and your personal conduct. He believes a man is defined by his work—not what he does, but how he does what he does.

 

Tim had run his own business before he came to the golf course. As he explains, “I came from a different background than civil service.” He didn’t hesitate to offer his own ideas, and although it took some time, the part of the system where he worked eventually promoted Tim’s interest in improving the course.

 

Unfortunately, civil service structures can be almost feudal in their operations depending, of course, on the administrators. The golf course exists within a larger political structure that has historically shown a built-in resistance to independent thinking.

 

The Sign

It’s hard to believe that 10 ½ years of work, training, and planning could be toppled by a lawn sign--it might even seem ridiculous.

 

It began two elections ago, when Christopher St. Lawrence was running for Ramapo Town Supervisor. Tim explained the sequence of events this way.

 

A friend of ours, Dave Stein—I know him through scouts and the kid’s activities—Dave Stein called me and asked if they could put a sign up on the corner of my property (David Stein is a member of Christopher St. Lawrence’s Ramapo Town Board).

 

I said sure. I figured they’d put out a small sign.

 

Meanwhile, I’m on the zoning board in the Village of Montebello so I agreed to have a Kathy Ellsworth sign—we’d have both. (Kathy was running against St. Lawrence in that election.)

 

I come home for lunch one afternoon, and I find an older Polish guy digging holes in my lawn and pulling out baby azaleas as he set two-by-fours in the ground to hold a large four-foot by eight-foot plywood sign.

 

The guy didn’t speak English, so I made a phone call to Chris St. Lawrence’s office.

 

“I allowed you to have some signs here, but I don’t want a large sign. A small sign is fine. Have someone come and remove the sign.”

 

A couple of weeks went by without a response, so Tim took the sign down and put it behind his fence. He called again and told the office, “If you want to come get it, you can. It’s still useful and you paid for it.”

 

But then: “I come home another day and the sign is back up.” Nobody notified me--they just came on my property and put it back up.

 

It should be noted that there are town employees who live in homes owned by the town. When the taxpayers are paying for even the light bulbs in these homes the employees might not have much to say about political signs on the lawn. But Tim Cronin is a private citizen, paying his own mortgage, living in his own home. If someone made the assumption that since he’s an employee, his yard is our yard, that would have been both wrong and arrogant.

 

Tim took the sign down and brought it back to Town Hall and left it leaning against the building with a message taped to it, “I don’t want the sign back up.”

I heard nothing after that, he explained—no ramifications.

 

Jump ahead:

 

Two years later, I’m working on the golf course—it’s pre-election season and I come home for lunch and find another election billboard sign up. I was never contacted by anybody—Dave Stein, Christopher St. Lawrence’s office, nobody. They just said—well, he had a sign there two years ago—I’ll just put another sign back up.

 

Once again it was 4x8 feet with 2x4s buried in his lawn.

 

“I took it down within minutes.” I thought, this is BS. Nobody called me, nobody contacted me. I took it down.

 

The response of the people at Tim’s job was predictable. They thought he was pretty ballsy, maybe even reckless. It might be said at this point that Tim admits he was a little naïve about how local politics worked at his job, but his intention wasn’t to tick anybody off, or to prove anything. His reason for doing what he did could be understood in the few words that might have occurred to most people—“it’s my yard.” But then again, most people wouldn’t have stood up for themselves as Tim did.

 

Then Dave Stein called and asked Tim if he could put up a sign.

 

“I told him, Dave I do not want Chris St. Lawrence’s name on my property. I don’t like what he did in the past and I do not endorse Chris St. Lawrence. I work for him, but I will not vote for him. And I do not want his name on my property.”

 

Dave Stein’s response was, “Oh, just put up the sign.” As though it was not a big deal. Tim had no doubts that Stein was told to make the call.

 

“I told him you could put up a Dave Stein sign, but he didn’t have any with just his name on them.” Tim got the feeling that Stein knew he wasn’t getting anywhere and the conversation ended.

 

Meanwhile, Tim recalls, I get a phone call from Jackie, one of St. Lawrence’s secretaries. She leaves a message that the Supervisor would like to talk to me, and here’s his cell phone—give him a call.

 

I ignored it, Tim explained, because I didn’t have anything to say to him. And besides he called me at home.

 

A few weeks went by, and one morning at the golf course there was a call, the Supervisor’s office was looking for me.

 

I was at work, so I took the call.

 

After some small talk, St. Lawrence said, “I want to put up a sign on your property.”

 

So I told him, no, I don’t want a sign on my property.

 

He said, what do you mean, I want to put up a sign. You’ve let me put up a sign in the past.

 

So I said again, I don’t want a sign on my property.

 

Well, I don’t understand why you don’t want a sign.

 

I just don’t want a sign on my property.

 

He’s pushing me, pushing me. Then St. Lawrence said, “But I support you in your job, and you’re not going to support me?”

 

I said thank you. And I do take pride in my job, but I’m not going to support you.

 

Finally, he says, “What do you mean? You don’t support me? You’re not supporting me?”

 

And I said, “Yes, that’s what it is. I don’t want your sign, I’m not supporting you. I don’t want your sign on my property.”

 

He got a little arrogant, and I basically said, “Good luck in the election,” and he hung up.

 

Asked to characterize the conversation, Tim summed it up: “He pushed me over and over saying you’re not going to support me? I’m not the kind of person to attack somebody and to say you’re a jerk or even something like I don’t like the way you dress. But I’m an American, and I live under the same Constitution as every other American, and if I don’t want a sign on my property, that’s my God-given right.”

 

The St. Lawrence campaign didn’t bring back a billboard, but the last chapter wasn’t written. 

 

The Reckoning

With the election past, and the winter over, the crew at the Spook Rock golf course prepared for another season. Tim Cronin had no way to guess that by the end of the summer, he would be reading a Notice of Hearing that would say, in part: “Please take notice that upon charges against you brought by Christopher P. St. Lawrence, Supervisor of the Town of Ramapo, a hearing would be held before a Hearing Officer on August 29, 2006.”

 

In the same document there were three charges stating “That while employed by the Town of Ramapo Department of Parks and Recreation, you were guilty of dereliction of duty, of misconduct, and of insubordination.”

 

Sounds as serious as a full court martial, but what Tim had actually done was to take some of his vacation time in the same week as his boss, Dan Madar. During the time that both were away, one of the other workers took over, guided by a work schedule made out by Tim’s boss and reviewed by Tim and the worker the day before Tim left. In Tim’s words, “Nothing ever happens here, and we’ve got another guy who has been here at the golf course for 30 years.”

 

He hadn’t swung a club at a co-worker, or cursed out a patron, had a fight with his boss, been drinking on the job, left chemicals in an unprotected area, wrecked a town vehicle—he had gone on vacation the same week as Dan Madar.

 

The tournament season was over, and there were no incidents in their absence. There weren’t likely to be any consequences of the mutual vacations—covering personnel were there to take care of the grounds.

 

The Hearing Notice explained that if Tim was unable to answer the charges, the penalty might be a demotion or a suspension without pay for a period not exceeding two months, a fine of $100 or less, or dismissal. Christopher St. Lawrence, with the approval of his board, apparently demanded the last option, the firing of the ten-year employee.

 

Tim did answer the charges, and his statement would seem to explain as well as mitigate the circumstances. A reprimand or a $100 fine probably would seem a little draconian given the chain of events, but even those penalties were not enough for those who brought the charges.

 

Here are the events as recalled in the official statement returned by Tim Cronin:

           

“I planned my vacation for August, 2006 after all of the tournaments (3) were held.

           

We planned our vacation around the date of my wife’s birthday (8-03-06) and also that week my son would be away with my mother (Las Vegas/Grand Canyon/Hoover Dam). Since my son is leaving for his freshman year at Syracuse University on Aug. 24, 2006, I thought we could all be away at the same time, and then could enjoy the last few weeks at home together, before he went to college.

 

In the past, vacation requests have never been a problem. The calendar chart for vacation requests is in Dan Madar’s locked office, behind his desk (not in plain view of the Golf Course employees.)

 

My wife booked the trip, and the ship was not available for any other dates than the week we requested, a payment in full was sent. [A tall-ship schooner cruise in Rockland, Maine.]

 

I requested from Dan Madar vacation time in the middle of July 2006, at that time is when I found out that Dan had already requested the same dates. Dan Madar told me he would check with Dan Covert and Ed Lockwood (his bosses), a few days went by so I did not think there was a problem.

 

Some point prior to us leaving on vacation Dan Madar gave me a memo from Ed Lockwood stating I could take the week before or the week after, but not the same week as Dan Madar. I again restated to Dan Madar that ship dates were only available for that specific week.

 

I went to Clark Park to meet with Ed Lockwood, and explained my situation. Ed did not express I could not go but said I had to work it out with Dan Madar. At this meeting with Ed Lockwood, he never discussed any disciplinary action would be taken against me. [Tim explained to me, “At no point did Ed Lockwood say to me you cannot go or there will be repercussions. He just said work it out with Dan Madar.”]

 

I then went back to Spook Rock Golf Course and spoke to Dan Madar and relayed Ed Lockwood’s message. Dan Madar stated he could not change his plans, and I at the same time told him I could not change mine, because of the ship’s availability. [Tim elaborated to me, “We sat down and basically made a schedule for Billy Wanamaker.”] Dan Madar at this meeting never discussed any disciplinary action either would be taken against me.

 

Dan Madar asked me on Friday July 28, 2006 as I was leaving work for the day when I was leaving on my vacation, I told him tomorrow evening. Nothing else was said at that point.

 

Saturday morning I reported to work. Dan Madar was not there, he had left earlier that morning for vacation. I sat down with Billy Wanamaker and discussed the work schedule that Dan Madar had prepared ahead of time for Billy and the week’s work to be completed.”

           

On his ride back home from Maine, as Tim’s cell phone came within range for reception, he picked up a message and found that he was going to be suspended without pay.

 

The notice in The Journal News of the Town Board’s action read: “The board also voted to suspend Timothy Cronin, an assistant greenskeeper with the Parks and Recreation Department without pay for 30 days effective Aug. 10, on a 3-0 vote with Stein abstaining. A disciplinary hearing is set for 10 a.m. Sept. 8 in the town attorney’s office before Jonas Gelb of Nyack.”

 

Tim was represented in the hearing by the attorney William Burke, assigned to his case by the Civil Service Employees Union (CSEA). At the meeting, Burke warned Tim and his wife Kathy that they were going to lose, he was going to be fired, and he advised Tim that the best thing he could do was to resign and sign the agreement relieving the Supervisor and Board against any future legal action.

 

When shown the details of the case a few months later, a long-time union activist responded by saying the lawyer should be fired. The case was not only wrong in its particulars, it was absolutely winnable.

 

What made the process even more outrageous was what happened at the Golf Course in the beginning of September. At the same time that Billy Wanamaker had gone on vacation, and while Tim was at home suspended and not working, Dan Madar took a few days off to take his kid to college, violating the 2-person vacation rule and leaving the grounds uncovered during Madar’s absence. Nothing was said, or made of this, or, perhaps, even noticed. The selective enforcement of the vacation rule seems to point to an obviously larger agenda in Tim’s case.

 

Tim Cronin’s position was made even more impossible by one other situation. The union attorney, Burke, explained that even if they won the case before the hearing officer, Jonas Gelb, the Supervisor and Town Board could overturn Gelb’s judgment and still fire Tim. At that point, his last recourse would have to be a civil lawsuit.

 

At the same time all of this was going on, the Cronins were in contract to buy property in Vermont and were ready to close on the sale. If Tim lost his job, the bank arrangements would fall through, and so would the sale.

 

So Tim’s choices were:

1.   Present his side of the events and hope for a good outcome from the judge. Then when the Supervisor overturned an affirmative judgment, as Burke expected he likely would, then file a lawsuit against the town and St. Lawrence. In that case he would lose the place they wanted to buy and move to. And without a salary, he could begin a lawsuit that he could win, but that literally would take years.

2.   There was an offer of a buyout. He could resign with a severance package, sign the town’s waiver, and purchase the property in Vermont. He would then get out from under the kind of situation where a politician can make the assumption that you’re indentured to his re-election efforts just because you’re a civil service employee. He would also escape the kind of political system that not only assumes it has rights that exist nowhere within the written law, but one that also believes it can break the law when it’s convenient.  

 

Unlike the decision Tim made when he was faced with repeated instances of trespass and coercion with the signs, the circumstances he was looking at now were almost completely beyond his control. Told several times that he couldn’t win, he signed the resignation and waiver agreement giving up all of his rights--he affixed his name to their narrative and conditions.

________________________________________________________________________

 

The Cronins will be moving to Vermont when they complete the sale of their home on Viola Road, and it will be the community’s loss. That’s understood by those who know Tim. Of the people interviewed for this story, there was not one who had an unkind word about Tim Cronin. Jeff Oppenheim, Mayor of Montebello, spoke about Tim’s service to the community. “Tim was held in high regard as a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals in Montebello.”

 

Dennis Kay, who has known Tim for 20 years through Boy Scouts described him as “not one to sit back. Tim is someone who always gives 150%--he never stops.” As Assistant Scoutmaster, Kay said the kids always looked up to him. “In fact, they called him MacGyver” because there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do. And in all the years, Dennis said he never once heard Tim yell at any of the kids. Friendly and outgoing, Tim is the kind of guy who is a good role model for all the kids. Dennis Kay is the current Mayor of the Village of Airmont.

 

Former Montebello mayor Kathy Gorman also spoke of Tim’s work on the village’s ZBA. “He was dependable and loved for what he did. He was always concerned about the community—a fine, fine person.”

 

More than that though, Kathy also spoke of Tim as a friend. “I have known him professionally and as a personal friend over 20 years. Tim is a very honorable man. He is an honest person—very dependable and he is a leader. I’m going to miss him terribly as a former mayor and as a friend.”

 

It almost seems fitting that the Cronins will be moving to New England, a part of the country where local traditions are built on stratified layers of independence. A place where the local philosopher Thoreau once summed up, “Be true to your work, your word, and your friend.” Sounds like the kind of place where Tim Cronin will fit in.

 

Ed Lockwood is gone, retired and moved out of the house the Town provided him, but in a file cabinet somewhere there’s Lockwood’s employee report praising Tim Cronin’s work and his work ethic. Or maybe the file is gone too. What remains, unfortunately, is a political structure that can take from a person their right to have their side heard and the chance to have the truth prevail.

      

Michael Castelluccio