Sunday, August 5, 2007

Asharoken Trustees Accused of Improper Caucusing


The allegation of improper caucusing raised a ruckus at the Asharoken Village Board’s monthly meeting Monday, August 6.
Trustee Pat Irving as well as several members of the audience voiced their concern about Mayor Bill Kelly meeting privately with Deputy Mayor Robert Marks and Trustees Alex Janow and Eric Fauser, all three registered members of the Village’s Taxpayer’s Party

Trustee Irving said she has been inexplicably excluded from what she calls “closed political caucuses to discuss Village business” and according to state open government laws, “caucuses unique to our Village are against the law.”
Mayor Kelly disagreed stating that, “The three of us can caucus right now,” meaning he and the other two Trustees, Fauser and Janow, who are registered Independent nationally.

Trustee Irving disagreed saying, “Caucuses were set up to discuss party business, not Village business,” and presented a letter stating as much from Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director for the New York State Department of State’s Committee on Open Government. He has served on the Committee since its creation in 1974 and was appointed executive director in 1976.
Mr. Freeman’s responsorial letter to Trustee Irving dated July 18, 2007 states that, under the Open Meetings Law, there are two vehicles under which members of a public body may meeet in private. One of those exemptions is for “deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses.” However, the political entity—the Taxpayer’s Party— that is unique to Asharoken is not a “party” according to state Election Law. According to Section 1-104 930 of the Election Law, the term “party” means any political organization which at the last preceding election for governor polled at least 50,000 votes for its candidate for governor.
“It is my understanding the Village has less than a thousand inhabitants,” Mr. Freeman wrote. “That being so, a political entity whose membership is not limited to Village residents is not a “party” and the Board members who are adherents of that entity, therefore, cannot, in my opinion, conduct closed political caucuses to discuss public business. On the contrary, any gathering of a majority of the Board for the purpose of conducting public business would constitute a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law that must be preceded by notice given in accordance with that statute.”
Mayor Kelly dismissed Mr. Freeman’s opinion, calling Mr. Freeman the “chief yenta” of and open government and said that he would prefer to get an opinion from the state Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo. Village Attorney Laure Nolan said that she would obtain that.
Village resident Laura Burke asked if the four would continue to meet while waiting for the Attorney General’s decision. Mayor Kelly said that when the caucus meets, it discusses “issues” not village business.
Trustee Irving’s husband John said that meeting privately “is unethical and not right and you know it.”
As tempers ran high, Trustee Fauser attempted to affect calm but the dispute continued.
Mayor Kelly said that he found it “unusual” that Trustee Irving was bringing up the issue because she used to participate in the caucuses when she was a member of the Taxpayer’s Party. She created her own Quality of Life party line when running unopposed for reelection in June after the Mayor declined to support her. Trustee Janow also ran unopposed.One hundred and twenty six people voted, with Trustee Irving receiving117 votes and Mr. Janow receiving 76 votes.
Trustee Janow agreed that he thought Trustee Irving’s current reaction to private meetings was out of character because she used to join the group, saying, “It’s okay when everyone is involved?”
Trustee Irving said that she may have taken part because “we didn’t know better.” And, she added, because of that former participation she knows what goes on in the meetings. “I’ve been in caucuses. Bill trained me. We discussed Village business.”
Mayor Kelly asked if decisions were ever made. Trustee Irving said no votes were taken.
He then told her that she doesn’t understand that state state legislature and senate use caucuses all the time. Trustee Irving said that is because their parties have more than 50,000 votes for governor.
Village Justice Charles Brown said that the Attorney General’s office probably already has issued an opinion on this.
Mayor Kelly said that if the Attorney General tells the Village its doing something improper, “We will not do it.”


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