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Rev Up the Clown Car

DOUGLAS CUNNINGHAM

DOUGLAS CUNNINGHAM

Sometimes, a story needs to bake a little more before it’s ready. I’ve known about this next bit for a little while. It’s sizzling hot. It says a lot about where our county politics are right now. And also, about the costs of not following the party line in Carmel, which is Republican, though these days it tends more toward Conservative, tied at the hip as it is to the attorney Compton Spain, named by our young incoming county executive Kevin Byrne last December to be County Attorney. Byrne noted then that Spain had stepped down as secretary of the county Conservative Party to take the county job.

Earlier this year, as NYC was overwhelmed by increasing numbers of migrants, and as the city sought to house some of them upstate, Byrne declared a “state of emergency” and issued various executive orders to deal with this, even though the county has almost no hotels or large spaces to house such numbers in any case, unlike our neighboring counties. In other words, no migrants were coming to Putnam.

Not content with a mere state of emergency, in June, our neophyte executive proposed changes to the County Code, ostensibly to protect residents and give the county tools to deal with such a situation. At a meeting of the Rules Committee that month, it was a mob scene in the Legislature’s committee meeting room as it took up these changes. I have spoken to several people who attended, and they were shaken by the visceral and raw emotions that had been unleashed. There is little doubt, none at all in my mind, that Byrne’s supporters had dog-whistled up a mob. Said one speaker that night, “To take on new people will create pollution because we are not bringing in model citizens.” That’s pretty much the tenor of it.

Then, in July, the county Legislature happily adopted, again with a mob on hand, the changes Byrne wanted to the code.

The Jonke and Byrne Clown Car.

I have spoken to several legislators about this. And they, save for Nancy Montgomery of Philipstown, a Democrat who opposed these moves, looked at this as a pretty dry and bureaucratic dotting-of-the-I’s and crossing-of-the-T’s. They were shocked that anyone might view these moves as intolerant or unwelcoming or racist. Truly, they thought the intent was pure. Righteous, even.

Into this chaotic and fraught scene ventured Norma Pereira of Carmel. She has long been an advocate for migrants, a record that goes back many years. She has also been an advocate for social justice causes of all kinds. Again, a record that goes back years. She is also, I’ll note, married to our senior reporter Eric Gross. I know them both; I’ve stayed at their house. Gracious, sincere, genuine people. And Pereira also was on the board of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Putnam County. Her support of the group’s work was enthusiastic and public.

So how, exactly, did NYS’s Hate Crime and Bias Prevention unit in the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau come to take an interest in our Putnam County? Come, pull up a chair with me.

In August, Ms. Pereira receives a call from Stefanie W. Hubert, Cornell’s executive director in Putnam. She told Pereira she had received a call from county Legislator Paul Jonke, who also is chairman of the Legislature. Hubert said this call occurred about Aug. 21, and the Jonke “advised me of statements that Ms. Pereira had made regarding the Putnam County Legislature and County Executive on social media on July 11, 2023. Mr. Jonke indicated that the Legislature was upset about the statements and found it offensive and inappropriate for a member of (Cornell’s) Board of directors to make such statements.”

Which brings us to one of the truths of life in the Byrne and Jonke era: One is only non-partisan and non-political if one agrees with them. Supposedly, these social media comments included referring to lawmakers and Byrne as clowns. None of the lawmakers I spoke with would provide a copy of these comments, and some were unaware of the matter.

Continuing: Hubert told Pereira via phone that Jonke demanded she leave the board, and said that Jonke had threatened Cornell’s funding if she did not. Pereira did not leave the board and did not resign, but she was subsequently removed in any case. Pereira came to believe her free speech had been improperly quashed, and, having deeply held views about free speech and migrants and the promise of this nation, alerted the Attorney General’s office to the matter.

The nature of Jonke’s discussion with Hubert is in dispute; Jonke told me by phone on Sept. 1 that he had indeed called Hubert, but said he didn’t demand anything and was in no position to do so anyway, realizing she reported to her board and not the Legislature. He said he told Hubert this was a “situation” she needed to be aware of, and he found the social media comments to be over the top. He told me lawmakers had legitimate concerns about Cornell’s lease with the county for space for a new barn at Tilly Foster, which he believed could be resolved with a reference to Cornell’s mission in the lease. That change was subsequently made. Other legislators told me they had a similar concern.

And, Jonke told me in that phone call, he supported the First Amendment and “I never said Norma’s got to go. I just said there’s a situation.”

In a Sept. 22 letter to Rick Sawyer, section chief of Hate Crime and Bias Prevention in the Attorney General’s office, Hubert recounted, “I was concerned that Ms. Pereira’s statements could jeopardize (Cornell’s) relationship with Putnam County and ability to function and continue our mission if we lost funding moving forward. I advised Ms. Pereira of the concerns raised regarding the statements she had made, and I ultimately asked Ms. Pereira to step down from the Board of Directors. In hindsight, I realize this was in error and I should not have asked Ms. Pereira to step down from the Board of Directors. I sincerely apologize in this regard.”

Hubert continued in the letter, “While I initially believed from my conversation with Mr. Jonke that I was being asked to remove Ms. Pereira from the Board of Directors and that it could impact (Cornell’s) funding moving forward, I now understand that was not the case. Mr. Jonke has clarified that he was not requesting Ms. Pereira be removed from the Board, and I now realize I misunderstood our conversation.” She said the Board would welcome Pereira back.

I can tell you that Pereira has no plans to rejoin the board.

Byrne, in response to my questions about this affair and the lease at Tilly Foster, said through spokesman Christopher Formisano: “I support the lease and stated my support during the state of the county. As Assemblyman, in the last year of my final term, I helped secure a $50,000 grant to Cornell Cooperative Extension for that very project.”

He added, “I very much want to see the project moved forward and succeed. As it stands, we already give them office space adjacent to the Department of Health. Tilly Foster Farm makes a lot of sense for this location.”

So, at the end of the day, where are we? Cornell has lost a board member, one who, I suspect, provided a perspective it did not have and which would have been valuable in this rapidly moving time in our occasionally cloistered county. County leaders have again been shown to be thin-skinned, though the degree of this trait is in some dispute, given the dichotomy between Hubert’s and Jonke’s descriptions of their phone call.

A point on the money: Putnam County does provide financial and other support to Cornell in Putnam, totaling $354,803 in 2022, or 29.7 percent of its total budget, according to Cornell’s 2022 annual report. The state picks up more, $497,202, or 41.5 percent, followed by $111,959, or 9.4 percent, from the federal government, and 19.4 percent from other sources. Putnam County doesn’t “run” Cornell, or even provide the bulk of its support.

Know this, too: Putnam receives immeasurably more benefit from Cornell being here than Cornell does from being here. In most counties, they’d leap at the chance to have Cornell build a new barn and office center. Only in Putnam are we parsing a board member’s social media views first.

Why, exactly, Pereira’s social media accounts have prompted such a consumption of time and thought by lawmakers is beyond me. Truly, most lawmakers’ interactions with Cornell are during the annual fair/country fest. I suspect I’ve run more cattle into a chute than all of the lawmakers combined. Which means I also know something about BS. Be it from cattle or from our county leaders.

Until next week.

I’m Doug Cunningham, and I’m editor of the Putnam County Courier and the Putnam County News and Recorder, in Cold Spring. Reach me at editor@pcnr.com, or at 845-265-2468. This column, any letters and the cartoons are opinions.

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