Things get heated as Supervisor Rights calls in sheriff's deputies
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In what was described by Town Clerk Ruth Mazzei as by far the worst meeting that she has ever attended, the two factions on the five-member Southeast town board made their differences quite clear Thursday night. As the debate over a state comptroller’s audit of the town escalated, Supervisor Michael Rights called in sheriff’s deputies and made nearly 20 failed motions to go into executive session before everyone started to walk out of the chamber.
The disorder began halfway through the two and a half hour meeting when Rights announced his proposal to “limit any prospective tax hike to no greater than the national inflation rate” for 2011. Rights has until Sept. 30 to submit his budget proposal to the rest of the board.
Councilman Robert Cullen said that such a proposition would be too difficult to vote on since none of them had seen any of next year’s budget plans.
“I, personally, would like to see [the budget] as soon as possible,” added Councilwoman Elizabeth Hudak. “But knowing that the supervisor was in Europe, on a happy occasion,” it seems the budget won’t be available until the last minute.
Rights said he disapproved of the town’s spending habits and defended his and Councilman Dwight Yee’s records of voting against excessive spending. He said “the old regime”—referring to Cullen, Hudak, and Councilman Roger Gross—have been “double dipping,” greasing “the folks who have been greased for generations.” Rights, Gross, and Yee all began their terms together in 2008; Hudak and Cullen took their elected offices in January of this year.
Gross said he “was a little resentful” because Rights “attacks us every week.” He said that he too was apprehensive about the budget’s status. Rights’s budget proposal from last year would have “stripped this place bare and we could not function," Gross said. "So we have to realistically look at our responsibilities as a service to the community in a fair and logical way that’s the best price."
In what became the main topic for the next hour and a half, Right discussed a New York State Comptroller audit report of the town’s books that was conducted last summer, per Rights’s request.
“I won’t read the entire executive summary, it’s not the most public of documents,” Rights began.
“I don’t think it’s a public document,” interrupted Cullen.
But Rights proceeded to read from the report, saying that anyone who wants to see the document can request it from his office. The draft cited purchases approved by the town board that might not have been in the best interest of the Southeast residents.
Yee supported the audit results. “Now we’re in a deficit," he said. "Why has it come to a point that a state auditor has to tell us? You [Hudak, Cullen, and Gross] didn’t listen to the supervisor. You didn’t listen to me.” He said that while he might be considered “silly” for caring about small purchases such as a $9.32 battery, “it has now added up to millions of dollars [and] now we hopefully don’t have a tax rate increase for this community.”
Gross and Hudak tried to respond to Yee’s accusations but Rights made use of the gavel to stop the councilmen from talking over one another, which added to the discord.
“That audit that you talked about criticizes all of us, in particular you because you are the budget officer and we were not kept abreast on what was going on until very recently,” Gross said. “I think we’ve done a damn good job in spite of your accusations and wild use of numbers.”
“You guys are out of control. Fortunately we have three votes to keep you in line,” Gross added, to cheers and applause from some of the 15 audience members still present two hours into the meeting. When Rights tried to respond, a couple of people in attendance made whining noises as if to drown him out.
Next, Hudak asked to borrow the audit report from which Rights had read. Rights refused to hand it over and told her to make her point. But later Gross got a hold of it and held it up for all to see: Across the front in large bold letters was the word “draft.” Hudak then explained that Christopher Ellis, chief examiner in the officer of the state comptroller, wrote this as “preliminary draft findings” and that he said it was not ready for public consumption.
“The supervisor spoke with the comptroller’s office and as a result a draft—d-r-a-f-t—report was prepared," Hudak said. "We were told to keep it confidential … I object!”
From the audience, one woman begged, “Can we please move on?” But the mudslinging continued.
Gavel swinging in hand, Rights gave the floor to Yee, who said that even after the meeting with the auditor, he didn’t think the report would change. Hudak said she believed that once the meeting took place, and the auditor’s concerns were explained, the report would be adjusted. “I want to know why is it that the chief financial officer, who is the supervisor, has not made us apprised,” she said. “It’s really a failure not to know until September that you have all of this deficit.”
Rights accused Hudak, Gross, and Cullen of trying to “bury” the document.
“I’m not burying any reports,” Hudak said. “When the report is complete, everyone can be invited and the leader of this board, I think, is going to have to answer to everyone out there as to why all of this happened too.”
By 9:30pm, two audience members were waiting to be recognized for public comment. Though they originally had been raising their hands, Mazzei, the town clerk,—who had been shaking her head and silently becoming more frustrated—signaled for them to stand at the microphone and wait to be heard. Hudak, Gross, and Cullen asked for Rights to allow them to speak; Hudak even made a formal motion, which was seconded, but Rights refused to accept it.
Argument ensued for 20 minutes, with Hudak imploring that members of the audience be permitted to speak. She also made a motion—denied by Rights—to have the camera, for those watching at home, show the two people standing at the podium.
Rights then told Hudak that he would phone the sheriff’s office if he could not have order. Cullen and Gross, as well as audience members, laughed, and Hudak said, “Phone the sheriff? He wants to stifle comment.”
With that, Rights asked his secretary, Nanci Kalbfell, to make the call. The board moved on—calmly—with two more items of business. Finally, Rights made a motion to take the meeting into executive session; Yee seconded the motion—but Hudak, Cullen, and Gross voted against it.
After Rights made four more motions to take the meeting into executive session, two deputies from the sheriff’s office entered the room and stood in the back. Rights made the motion again—and again, roughly fourteen times—but was denied continuously with 3-2 votes. Gross who had been quiet for some time, yelled, “How juvenile can you be? Grow up!”
The yelling did not stop there. A man from the back of the room belted, “The meeting’s over, let her [Hudak] talk! … You’re a criminal, man, you’re an animal.” A woman from the audience asked Rights, “How many drinks did you have before you came? … You ought to be shot.”
Mazzei was the first to walk off the bench and started the trend with the other town board members. Shouting and ridicule came from nearly every part of the room. Rights established that the executive session would take place at another time, but the meeting was already over given that all the councilmen essentially walked out.
On Friday, Mazzei spoke to the Courier and said she was embarrassed about what happened. “Last night I was embarrassed to be a town clerk and sit at that meeting and hear that gavel constantly bang,” she said. “I was actually in shock with what went on last night and I actually had to get up and leave the dais because … this has happened before … but last night it was just such a travesty.”
As reported in the September 2 Courier, Southeast citizens already hold a low view of their town board. According to a survey conducted by pollster Kieran Mahoney for the Courier, 74.5 percent of respondents in Southeast said their board was doing a “fair or poor” job—by far the lowest rating received by any of Putnam County’s six town boards.