2012-07-18 / Front Page

Citizens Team Up on Mayor

Use comment session to challenge pay raise, ethics
By Annie Chesnut

Michael Bowman, right, makes a public comment before the Cold Spring Board and an exhausted-looking audience that includes Fair Street homeowner Susan Peehl, left. 
Annie Chesnut Michael Bowman, right, makes a public comment before the Cold Spring Board and an exhausted-looking audience that includes Fair Street homeowner Susan Peehl, left. Annie Chesnut In what amounted to a 3-on-1 tag team match, several Cold Spring community members went after Mayor Seth Gallagher at Tuesday night’s monthly Village Board meeting.

Although it’s highly unlikely that they coordinated the effort in advance, residents Susan Peehl, Gordon Robertson, and Michael Bowman each took the microphone more than once during the Public Comment period to describe and decry what they characterized as ethical missteps by the recently embattled Village leader.

Perhaps anticipating a salvo or two, Gallagher opened the comment period by reiterating the rules for public comments, including a 5-minute limit and restricting vulgar language and cross talk.

Salary Increase

In Bowman’s case, the topic was the continued questioning of Gallagher’s actions in granting himself (with the support of three out of four board trustees) a $2,500 salary increase in late April. At last month’s monthly meeting, Bowman—who has also circulated an online petition demanding that Gallagher’s increase be rescinded—read a formal letter to the board questioning numerous aspects of the budgeting process. One point of concern is that a public hearing on the budget was closed on April 17, but that the actual increase was granted on the 24th. Bowman also asked that the Board “consider any budgetary actions taken on April 24th 2012 to be null and void,” and charged that the Mayor “manipulated taxpayer funds for his own financial gain.” 

At that meeting attorney Stephen Gaba noted, “I did not see any procedural irregularities,” and as for accusations of ethical violations, Gaba said, “I’ve got to tell you, they sound completely spurious to me.”

At this meeting Trustee and Deputy Mayor Bruce Campbell volunteered additional information that he obtained from the NY Conference of Mayors (NYCOM). Campbell reported that Wade Beltramo, General Counsel at NYCOM, reviewed Bowman’s letter and “said that he didn’t see any conflict at all” in the way Gallagher handled the salary increase.

For his part, Gallagher, in a wide-ranging interview the day after the meeting, reiterated his position—backed up by meeting minutes—that his actions had been above-board, and reflective of plans to provide the mayor’s budget line with an increase; plans that were first brought up before he was even elected.

In a second statement later in the comment period, Bowman reiterated his request to have an ethics investigation concerning the Mayor’s behavior.

The unofficial consensus in much of the community seems to be that this issue should be put to rest, although it is likely that Gallagher could certainly have found a more transparent and time-sensitive way to advocate for and obtain a salary increase.

Stone Street Viewshed

Susan Peehl, who lives with her husband Andrew Hall at 13 Fair Street, read a lengthy statement alleging “certainly inappropriate and very possibly…unethical behavior on the part of the Mayor and other Board members” with regard to a controversial shed replacement at 14 Stone Street, the home of Paul Henderson and Beth Sigler. Peehl and Hall have raised a number of concerns about the shed project.

The core of Peehl’s argument seemed to be her concern that Gallagher, Francisco, and Historic District Review Board member Kathleen Foley had allegedly spoken publicly at a June 12 Zoning Board of Appeals meeting—albeit as private citizens—in support of the Henderson/ Sigler project, and had thus thrown the weight of their respective offices behind it. She also questioned why the Peehl/Hall objections had been discussed with Building Inspector Bill Bujarski (who is appointed by the Mayor) at an April 10 Village Board meeting when their appeal had not been filed until April 18.

Gallagher interrupted Peehl at one point to indicate that her five minutes were up. He added that “I think it’s unfortunate what you’re doing when you leap to the conclusions of ‘unethical’… When you go to motivation, I think you’re going down the wrong hole. …It doesn’t help the situation at all.”

Gallagher added that he does not have the power to remove anyone from the Zoning Board, and that in a small village people play multiple roles. “The thing is our boards are very independent,” and added that he was attending as a neighbor of both the parties involved in the dispute.

Trustees Campbell, Chuck Hustis, and Ralph Falloon indicated their willingness to let Peehl continue. She said she would like to encourage the board to “think beyond just monetary” ethical concerns and consider incorporating language into the village code concerning board members’ personal involvement in meetings in which they have “a direct personal interest.”

Gallagher replied that “when you live in a small village you have a personal interest in everything.” He told Peehl, “You ask for support when it’s you who want support, but when people don’t support that then you say, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t be able to have an opinion’… I’d say the vast majority of people were kind of upset with what you were asking for.”

He also noted, “Ethical behavior to me is one of the things that’s most important to me...there is no favoritism.”

Peehl appeared businesslike and respectful despite the powerful accusations included in her written statement.The matter of the shed was reviewed again at the July 11 meeting of the Cold Spring Historic District Review Board (see separate article in this issue for more details), where Peehl reportedly made a significantly more angry and emotional presentation.

Henderson Responds

Later in the comment period, Paul Henderson of 14 Stone Street told the board, “We don’t feel at all privileged, or that anyone is particularly on our side on the 14 Stone Street shed project. We feel, in fact, rather intimidated. My family can’t go into the back yard…They will not go around the corner because they’re afraid of being confronted by neighbors. A place where we felt like we were at home no longer feels like home.”

Henderson continued that although he felt he and his wife had done everything appropriately with regard to their shed, “Our reward has been to feel like we are completely…excluded, we feel put upon.”

Henderson concluded that he hoped his family could recover from this process and could feel that they wanted to continue to “feel and want to be, members of this Village. …Our rights have been suppressed at the precedence of a minority.”

Robertson Returns

Former Board trustee Gordon Robertson, who, ironically, was a good friend of Gallagher’s for many years before they jointly served on the Board, also took the floor and began by saying, “I’ve been to two consecutive meetings of the Board, which is very unusual for me.” He added that he was concerned “that we’re discussing ethical behavior of a member of this Board,” and suggested that the board give consideration to forming a Board of Ethics.

“What you don’t want is a political witch hunt,” Gallagher said to trustee Ralph Falloon at one point near the end of the meeting. Falloon responded that simply saying no ethical violations exist is not a good enough answer to people who raise ethical questions.

Gallagher made a motion to adjourn but could not get Francisco, Campbell, Falloon, or Hustis to second his motion. The board finally agreed to allow two more comments—one from Robertson and one from Peehl, for 2 ½ minutes each.

As it turned out, Robertson had the last word. In the final public comment of Tuesday’s meeting, Robertson, growing progressively angry, accused the Mayor of lying to the Board outright several years ago when local architect James Hartford was selected to be the Village’s new Building Inspector. According to Robertson, in addition to Hartford, there was a pool of four or five people whom he believes were not properly vetted by the Mayor.

In a lengthy phone interview last Wednesday Robertson described a series of what he said were politically motivated actions by Gallagher, noting, “He is the thing that has polarized this entire Village.” He recalled that he asked Gallagher specifically if he had personally talked to all of them and the Mayor said yes. “He fabricates…. he gets backed into a corner [and] it just gets compounded and compounded and compounded,” Robertson maintained.

For his part, Gallagher told the PCN&R that he “ran all the names” past current Trustee, Ralph Falloon—who was the assistant Building Inspector at the time—as well as either calling or emailing most of them.

When the contentious meeting was finally adjourned, the only audible sounds were a few sighs of relief.

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