Town Board Re-Evaluates Its Membership In A Statewide Association of Towns
January 25, 2013
At its most recent meeting on January 23, the North Castle Town Board re-evaluated its membership in the New York State Association of Towns. Supervisor Howard Arden said that membership in the association is worthwhile and would have lot of benefits for the town. Unfortunately, Arden said the association has hired an executive director, Gerry Geist, who is involved in a lawsuit suing the town. "I have a problem in principle with sending membership dues to an organization that is directly involved with suing the town. I think it it is a conflict of interest and find I have an issue with it," Arden said.
Councilman Mike Schiliro said it is not the organization that is suing the town. It is an individual who happens to be a former town board member who serves as the executive director of the organization, but the Association of Towns has nothing to do with the litigation against the town. "I agree with Howard that it is a very worthwhile organization," Schiliro said. The association runs a training school every February, and as an elected official, Schiliro attends classes with panels of other elected officials from around the state, as well as people from the private sectors.
"It is a good resource for the town, Schiliro says. "We are a town and they lobby on our behalf to the legislature and the governor on certain issues. I have served as a delegate since I've been a board member. It is a worthwhile organization and I have an issue with connecting the two. A former town board member is part of a legal action against the town, but whether he is part of it or not, that litigation remains. In the end, the employees and department heads lose if we can't participate in this organization. The Town Clerk uses this office often, and I call them frequently especially their legal department. And the residents will lose this resource that we have. I understand the issues that some people on this board have, but I just think it is shortsighted not to continue our membership in the Association of Towns. It is a collection of villages and counties that everybody belongs to. They provide resources for us, they lobby for us. I think it is shortsighted to not continue our membership because a previous board member has brought litigation. I am very much in favor of continuing our membership."
Councilman Diane Roth said she is not in favor of continuing our membership. "I believe you have to take a stand on what you believe in and what you think is right. If a former town board member is suing the town that he worked in for as an elected official, I think that is inappropriate. I think it is unnecessary. For us to go to an association that has someone who is suing the town for something I feel he was not entitled to go forward with as their executive director is improper. A lot of the information that is available from the association will still be available. I don't feel there is anything in separating from it that will be a loss to our community. It is a loss to our community if we don't stand up for what we believe in. I believe that this lawsuit is unjust and inappropriate, and for the association to choose him as an executive director is wrong."
Councilman Steve D'Angelo said, "The Association of Towns works for the town. They do a lot of good things for us, especially at the legal end. I spoke to [the Town Clerk] Anne [Curran] today and she tells me that she talks to them once a month to learn about pertinent legal opinions. I think by not paying the dues and joining this organization, it's the ultimate in cutting your nose off to spite your face. Yes, there is a lawsuit, and Mr. Geist is a party to that lawsuit, but if he were to leave that lawsuit today, we would spend the same amount of legal fees whether he was involved or not. There are a number of people involved. Why would we give up joining this organization? It works for us, it lobbies. There are about 10 or 11 proposals they have this year that will help the town. If we don't be part of it and they do all this stuff for us, we are just getting a free ride. It is our duty as a town to join this association and work with it. Anne, can you tell us a little bit about what the organization does for you?"
Town Clerk Anne Curran said the organization is very helpful. "I wish that the Town Board had asked the department heads how they make use of it. For me they are very helpful in clarifying technical changes that happen to a code or procedures for licensing or permitting. For legal opinions, they are extremely valuable. There is an attorney who I can pick up the phone and leave a message with and she'll call me back. Whether it is insurance related or just a new regulation that has been passed about open government. It would be a real shame to lose accessibility to that type of professional service. We may be the only Westchester town that does not participate as a member. I belong to the Westchester Towns Association and there is always the comparison to the statewide Association of Towns over who can we reach out to on the executive committee. In the town of Southold, there is someone I spent half the day with to research records management and her information was hugely valuable in applying for a grant that we received. The association is a professional organization, and I don't know why the Town of North Castle would choose to leave it over a particular personal matter. I have expressed this to all of you by email; I think it is a big mistake not to continue membership."
Councilman John Cronin objected to Steve D'Angelo's use of the term free ride. "The people who have been getting a free ride are Gerry Geist and Bill Weaver who were part-time employees of the town and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care benefits. And then upon retirement from the board, have the nerve to turn around and try to continue to collect those benefits. The Association of Towns is a lobbying group and a trade association. Its purpose is to lobby on behalf of small towns. How we could continue to pay the dues when the executive director of this association is a former town board member who is suing the town. So yes, the Association of Towns is not suing us, but indirectly, they pay Gerry Geist's salary and Gerry Geist is part of the group that is funding this lawsuit. My understanding is that there are courses that if our town employees wish to attend they can pay an additional $25 dollars to attend versus what we would have to pay if we were a member of the Association of Towns. I am happy to revisit this issue after the lawsuit is settled, which I hope will be shortly, because it has cost us tens of thousands of dollars. But I don't see how, in good conscience, I could support a trade association when the executive director of that association is suing the town that he is purportedly working for."
Supervisor Arden said that when he ran for office he pledged that if he were elected, he would run North Castle in a fair and consistent manner based on principles. "I can't in good conscience now join an organization that is spending our taxpayers' dollars in a lawsuit. How can we support an organization that indirectly is suing the town? A lawsuit that has already cost us $15,000 in taxpayers' money. I consider providing full-time family medical coverage for part-time elected officials who hold full-time jobs elsewhere as generational theft." Arden then read from a prepared statement, "Mr. Geist has received over $250,000 in medical payment so far from North Castle, until the time we ended it last year. Like Washington, I have, with support of Councilman Cronin and Councilman Roth, put an end to that unsustainable and selfish practice. This is an action which is in no way reflected in the association and I fully expect the town to be a member in good standing in the future after this issue is solved." "So I will be voting against joining this organization this year," said Arden.
Councilman D'Angelo said the Association of Towns is not suing the town of North Castle indirectly, directly or in any other way. It hired Mr. Geist to be its Executive Director. He was one of many people who were affected by last year's new employee manual, and that group of people is suing the town, not the Association of Towns. To take away the resources of this association from the people of this town, because Mr. Geist is an Executive Director, is to hurt the people of the town. It is a principled stand, but it is a principled stand in the wrong direction."
Arden said, "I spoke with a attorney from the association. He agreed that there was a conflict of interest that could possible be an issue."
"Did he explain how?" asked Schiliro.
"He did and it was a legal term," said Arden. "I forget what he said. I believe the attorney was Michael Kenneally."
Town resident John Diaconis, who is an attorney, asked if the town's insurers might cover some of the costs of the lawsuit.
Town Attorney Roland Baroni said the insurers were put on notice as soon as the claim was filed, and there is no coverage.
Supervisor Arden said the town's special counsel, [from the law firm Keane & Beane in White Plains], has reviewed and cleared the letter that he wants to send to the Association of Towns.
Town Clerk Anne Curran read the letter, dated January 23, 2013 to Mr. Timothy Whitesell, President of the Executive Committee of the Association of Towns.
"Dear Mr. Whitesell,
I regret to inform the Association that the Town of North Castle by vote of its duly elected Town Board has chosen to withdraw from the Association of the Towns of the State of New York until further notice.
We are compelled to take this action for two reasons. It is our opinion that the appointment of Gerald Geist as Executive Director of the Association, despite the fact that he is suing North Castle, is a violation of the association's constitution and bylaws as well as a slap in the face to its members.
Article one of the association's bylaws clearly states the purpose of the association shall be to act as an agency of the towns of this state to "provide practical means and a way to obtaining greater economy and efficiency in the government."
Such bylaws further require the association to "take all necessary proper actions to preserve strong and effective town government in New York State and do any and all other things necessary and proper to affect the economy and efficiency in government for the benefit of the towns of New York State and their inhabitants."
Currently, Mr. Geist is a petitioner-plaintiff in an action against the town of North Castle. Mr. Geist and others claim that the town of North Castle has no power to alter retirees medical benefits. North Castle feels confident that North Castle will prevail and the action will be dismissed.
In the opinion of North Castle, the Executive Director Geist, and by extension, the association has violated their bylaws. Years ago, then a part-time councilman, Executive Director Geist, voted to bestow full, lifetime family medical benefits on elected town officials. His lawsuit against us, in response to changes to such benefits, duly voted upon the authority by our current town board, argues that the town board has no right to alter these benefits or to take other actions to preserve both the financial health of the town, and the strong and effective town government. His position is in direct conflict with the mission of the association he has been appointed to represent.
A second reason for suspending our membership is both practical and financial. We feel that it could possibly be seen as a breach of our fiduciary responsibility to pay the organization who is indirectly suing us. North Castle has thus far incurred $15,000 in legal fees to defend against Executive Director Geist's lawsuit. Our annual dues to the association would be better put towards deferring those costs.
We take this action very reluctantly, knowing the many benefits the association has provided North Castle in the past. North Castle looks forward to a speedy resolution of this issue and rejoining the association in the future.
Howard B. Arden, Town of North Castle Supervisor"
Councilman Schiliro asked that the first paragraph be read again, and then asked, how Supervisor Arden knew how the Town Board would vote.
Arden said, "Obviously we discussed this last time and the letter is in anticipation of this vote."
"But you wrote the letter before we voted," said Schiliro. "Who is signing this letter? You?"
"No one has signed it yet, Mike," said Arden.
"My name is not going on that letter," Schiliro said, "I'm stunned at the board and their action on this. This is a mundane trade association that employees of this town gain knowledge and experience from and it helps you, the residents, the people sitting in this audience, the people that are watching at home. And to think that the Association of Towns is indirectly suing the town, I can't believe that. How can you even make that statement? It is ludicrous. The Town Administrator could use this association, the former comptroller always used the association, as did our receiver of taxes. I'm stunned that we are going to sever our relationship because of something completely unconnected to what this association provides and what they do…."
"It is connected," said Councilman Roth. "It is exactly what it is. They are a lobbying group to help towns better themselves and protect themselves from the type of thing that happened to us. So this is exactly what we are supposed to stand for. You did not vote to get rid of this health care that was inappropriate for people to be collecting, and that is why you are still standing in that spot. You have to stand with us and realize what's best for the community. We cannot sustain ourselves. It is a million dollar lottery ticket for each town board member to accept this health care. When I came onto the Town Board, I said I am not entitled to it, this is public service, I will not take it. We can not allow this town to have this expense every time there is a new town board member. We have to stand by what we believe and for the financial future of this Town. And that is what the Association of Towns is supposed to be standing for."
"But if we are talking about what is good for the town, let's put the personal stuff aside," said Councilman D'Angelo.
"There is nothing that you'll lose out on," Roth said, "employees can still go to the conferences. They still have access to them so all that is fluff."
"I agree with one thing Mike said," Councilman Cronin added, "I think that this is mundane matter. We have more important things to be concerned with. I told the Supervisor I would support paying the dues until the lawsuit was settled. And when the lawsuit is settled, if we think it is advantageous to rejoin the Association of Towns, I think that is fine. Personally I understand the [Town] Clerk using them once month, and our other employees can still go to their seminars. I personally get zero value out of the Association of Towns to be honest, I've been on the board for three years. I get the magazine and look through it and chuck it. And that's pretty much my association with the Associations of Towns. I don't know why we are wasting a lot of time on this."
"Has a lawyer seen the exact wording of the letter?' asked resident Diaconis.
"Yes, Stephanie Roebuck has seen the exact wording of the letter," Supervisor Arden said. "And I'll be glad to have Roland confer with Stephanie on this together. I certainly don't want to prejudice ourselves in a lawsuit. But I do think we have to stand up for our principle."
"Why don't we defer this until we have that discussion?" asked Councilman Cronin.
"We had the discussion already," said Councilman Roth.
"You don't want to send the letter tomorrow," said Councilman D'Angelo. "Obviously you don't want to join the association until the lawsuit is over. Let's get this out of the way and move on. If a letter goes out, we all see it before it goes out and make sure that Roland talks to Stephanie, and make sure we are all satisfied that we are not going to make this any worse, even though we just read the letter on TV. It is an annual membership, and the big meeting is during the Washington Birthday break."
"Don't oversell the importance of being a member of this association," said Councilman Cronin.
"I feel very strongly that it is the principle that we need to stand for, and this letter covers this issue and brings attention to this abuse to all the other towns," Supervisor Arden said. "Because this will get some attention from the other towns when they hear what is going on. It is an important issue to take a stand on."
"I agree it will get coverage," said Councilman Schiliro, "but don't agree how it will be received. I respect the members of this board that stand on principle for this, but again there is a disconnect. The value of the association, and I understand that John hasn't got much out of it, but I spend a lot of time with it and go to the training school and take a lot of classes during those days. And then communicate with Albany when I have certain questions for the legal department. Not to participate and use their resources is wrong, because other towns are paying.
"Many towns are not members and they send people who pay $25 extra for a meeting," said Supervisor Arden.
"You said that you have an issue with what [Gerry Geist] did while he served," Schiliro said. "Fine, that is your opinion. But to not participate in the association where it could impact department heads, and indirectly impact the residents because they are the ones who are the ultimate beneficiaries from the additional knowledge that we might have and the improved decisions we might make. I am extremely disappointed. I never thought we would have a debate like this on joining the Association of Towns."
"We are going to hold the letter until such time we give this a little further legal review," said attorney Roland Baroni.
"The letter has nothing to do with the decision," Schiliro said. "The decision to send the letter is an even worse decision, but my name is not going on that letter."
"I would like to hear a motion that we postpone joining the association until legal action is resolved, and stating that the letter will be held until legal opinion is rendered," said Supervisor Arden.
"If a legal decision is rendered against the town," Councilman Schiliro asked, "are you still going to join the association, or is it based upon what the decision is? Because if it is not, what are we waiting for? They had a legal right to action and the courts will make a decision. What are we waiting to make a decision for?"
"When the case is resolved and the decision has been made at that point we will determine if we will join the association," Arden replied.
"Will the decisions that the courts make have any bearing on whether or not we join the association?" asked D'Angelo.
"I don't know," Arden said. "We'll visit it at that point. Maybe."
"I just want Roland to give us clarity that he is okay with everything we are doing," said Councilman Cronin.
"On whether or not that letter should be sent, I think we need a little further review with Stephanie Roebuck," Baroni said.
The motion requested by Supervisor Arden was made by Diane Roth, and seconded by John Cronin. The roll call vote was split 3 to 2, with Mike Schiliro and Steve D'Angelo voting no and Supervisor Howard Arden voting yes.