Two Phantom Meetings Cancel Citizens' Rights in Airmont

April 21, Airmont Village Hall

If you called Airmont Village Hall Friday morning about the Planning Board Meeting held the night before to consider the Hillside yeshivas, you would have been told the meeting had been canceled and no business was conducted. That's what I was told when I called Friday morning to FOIL the minutes of the meeting. No minutes, no meeting, and the clerk for the Planning Board was on vacation. No decision then on the question: Should the Planning Board be the lead agency in Hillside application?

Having learned to be skeptical because of other statements made by village officials (notably Mayor Layne), I decided to check further. Saturday, I was informed by a reliable source that the decision had been made, and the only way to reverse it would be to hold another public meeting of the Planning Board to consider rescinding it. Sunday's Journal News verified that the Planning Board had made itself lead agency for SEQRA in the Thursday night meeting.

If you were there Thursday night, the results were anything but clear. Many left that night knowing that the meeting had been adjourned with the help of the Ramapo Police, but many left without answers to the questions: Was that a legal meeting? Can they do that?

That Night

By eight o'clock, the meeting hall was so packed no one else was getting in, and there were twice as many people out in the hall and down the steps into the parking lot. The legal occupancy had been far exceeded in the hall, down the stairs, and milling around outside. The other legal issue now at play concerned excluding the public during a public Planning Board Meeting. To deny the public the right to sit in on such a public meeting violates state law. So all that remained for Mr. Dennis Cohen, who was leading the meeting, would be to estimate the crowd, ask about those who couldn't get in, and then he would cancel to reschedule for a larger venue. Other recent Village Hall meetings had followed this very same course.

Instead, Mr. Cohen asked of those in the hall, who was there for the which items on the agenda. His intention to shuffle different "legal-size" meetings in and out of the room ended when the assembled loudly informed him that they were there for the Hillside application, and no one was leaving. What he did next was disgraceful, and very likely illegal on two grounds. Disgraceful because he already demonstrated that he knew he shouldn't proceed because the occupancy rule prohibited this kind of assembly.

In the middle of loud murmuring, I heard someone next to me saying, "He's going to do it." The board stood for the pledge of allegiance. As they sat down, he quickly called for a vote on the resolution to designate his group as lead agency, a count of yeses was heard, and he declared it passed.

What followed approached chaos. Shouts of "You can't do that!" initiated an angry dialogue between Cohen and the residents. As other members of the board sat stony-faced and withdrawn, Mr. Cohen told the assembly that he was under legal pressure to expedite the process. He apparently was referring to parts of the legal settlement signed by the Mayor concerning the RLUIPA lawsuit. The effect was a little like turning the kerosine pump on the brushfire.

Before long, someone seated at the table ducked out into the back room, and the Ramapo Police were on their way. A little late to the thinking of most of those seated in hall and outside.

The discussion was heated and getting nastier. The lawyer for the Planning Board was there (Paul Baum), and many were yelling up for his advice on the legality of the situation, but he remained steadfast--his back was to the audience, and once things got rolling, I did not see him turn around once.

By the time the police arrived, loud chants and accusations had pretty much eliminated anything that resembled a back and forth, acrimonious though it was. Curious, I followed one of the officers out into the hall as he counted the attendees. He had not gotten to the end of the hall when he left off at 136. Almost triple the limit, and I heard another "inside" count of more than 160. I asked the officer if this constituted an illegal assembly. Like the lawyer, somehow he wasn't able hear or see me standing at his side.

The meeting, if there had been one, apparently was over. It took a while for three officers to clear the room, and many left with questions about what the end result of the evening had been.

1. Did the Board hold a legal public session during which they assigned themselves as lead agency in the Hillside application?

2. If that was a meeting, should the Ramapo Police have cited Mr. Cohen for violating the Village occupancy law regarding the illegal overcrowding?

3. Because residents were kept out of the public meeting, will there be any consequences for violating the state law regarding access to public meetings?

4. Is this the way the Planning Board intends to conduct this process into the future?

Phantom Meeting 1--The LSK Sellout

Thursday was actually not the first Airmont meeting that ventured into legal Neverland. The other took place in the same Village Hall, but that night (January 3, 2005), the public meeting took place in a completely empty hall. After coming back out of executive session, during which Mayor Layne, Mr. Spampanato and Kugel decided sell out the Village in an outrageously one-sided settlement of the RLUIPA lawsuit, there was no need to call the Ramapo police. No one was there. The public had been told to go home after a notice was posted on the door. In that meeting, one can only imagine the contrast--how quiet it must have been as a 3-2 vote began the process that has the potential of destroying a neighborhood. That night in January the tree fell in the forest and none of us heard anything. (Incidentally, the trustees voting against the sellout were Joseph Meyers and Dennis Kay.)

What is especially unsettling about Mr. Cohen’s first meeting of the Planning Board’s review of Hillside is that if he and the board feel that they are under such compelling pressure to expedite this review that they are willing to violate local ordinances as well as state law, perhaps they should consider another group that could give this matter a more measured hearing—perhaps the County. We don’t need more trees falling in the middle of the night, at Village Hall or up on Hillside Avenue.

Michael Castelluccio