MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Members of the Town Board clashed at a meeting recently over how special workshops for the master plan and town code revision project should be conducted.
At the center of the debate was which board members should participate in those meetings, how that could be executed, and whether these early-stage meetings should be broadcast for public consumption.
State law allows for only two board members to attend these workshops because three or more would create a quorum and thus violate open meeting laws. Supervisor Ken Schmitt and Councilwoman Suzi McDonough, who is chair of the master plan committee, have represented the board at the two meetings held thus far with Nelson, Pope & Voorhis (NPV), the Suffern, N.Y.-based consulting firm hired by the town to assist in the project.
“I know that there have been a few meetings or workshops with regard to the master plan. I think it needs more input from the entire board,” said Councilman Frank Lombardi. “This is a very, very big project. The people who are on the committee have done great work so far, from what I understand, but I’m an elected official and responsible to the public. I need to know everything that is going on. I have an equal vote, just like everyone else on this board. We have to make some kind of different arrangement with regard to Town Board input at these meetings.”
McDonough said it was decided back in January that there would be two board members involved and if one of those board members could not attend, someone else from the Town Board would take that member’s place.
“Nelson, Pope & Voorhis put together a schedule and everyone was well aware of it. Everything will be brought to the Town Board,” she said. “But we can certainly rotate [who attends the meetings]. I have no problem with that because it is a huge project and I want it to be right for all the residents in town.”
Lombardi said whatever the procedure is to inform board members who don’t attend needs to be revised because he still hasn’t received any information from the meeting that was held back in April.
“Whatever it is, it needs to change moving forward because I want a voice. The first meeting was on April 29. I still have not seen minutes; I have not seen a video,” he said. “It’s odd that we got something from last night’s meeting (June 2) after I started asking questions today, but we still haven’t gotten anything from April 29.”
McDonough promised that she would reach out to NPV and have them send the information regarding the April session.
“As a board member, I shouldn’t have to ask for it,” Lombardi replied.
Councilman Mike Barile said he wants the workshops with NPV broadcast on the town’s cable-access channels, the same way Town Board, Planning Board and ZBA meetings are aired.
“I want to be able to watch the meetings. They are very important,” Barile said. “I don’t want to read minutes. I don’t want to look at pictures. I want to hear what people are saying at the meetings when I’m not there. I have the right to view this meeting. It is the biggest thing happening for the town and I want to see it. The people should also be able to see the meetings and see what’s going on even if they can’t comment.”
But McDonough argued that these early meetings are simple information-gathering meetings for NPV and that later workshops will involve public participation.
“The way I understand this, the way NPV set this is up is these first few meetings were information-gathering meetings, and they were putting [the information] together, they were collating it and putting together files for when it’s rolled out to the public,” he said. “They are learning about the town of Carmel and getting information. There is a point in time when this will all be rolled out to the public, and they will be participating in the process.”
But Barile argued that he wasn’t looking for public participation, he simply wanted residents to be able to passively observe the meetings.
McDonough said she would reach out to Nelson, Pope & Voorhis to get their thoughts on broadcasting the sessions.
“I will speak with them, but this is not what was agreed upon,” she said. “We all sat in with NPV and went over what they wanted to do, and nobody said any of this then. We hired them as professionals. But I will certainly ask them the questions that Frank and Mike have. But I am not going to tell them how to do their job.”
But Lombardi said he never agreed to these procedures.
“Please don’t mislead the public and say that I agreed to this,” he told McDonough. “Before the last meeting, I asked for more of us to be involved and be part of this. I want input and hear what they have to say.”
Lombardi said rotating Town Board members through future meetings would be inconsistent, with each board member only knowing information about the specific meetings he or she attended.
McDonough asked town attorney Greg Folchetti to weigh in on the debate.
“From the point of view of the process, there is a timeline and pathway method that Nelson, Pope & Voorhis has given to the board where a series of information-gathering meetings [are held] and periodically during that process they are going to come to [the Town Board] and then that would be something that’s open to the public,” Folchetti said. “[NPV would] present their findings and then the board would give them direction as to where they want to go with those findings and the information that’s presented.”
Folchetti said all five board members would have “absolute input” on whatever happens, and the meetings will be viewable by the public eventually.
“I understand what Councilman Lombardi and Councilman Barile are saying but I would defer to what your consultant wants you to do in that process. That’s their job,” the attorney said. “We have public works and design projects all the time that consultants work on and the board doesn’t get updated until a certain point.”
An exasperated McDonough said at one point that as chair of the master plan committee, she felt she was being attacked personally.
“It seems like because I am chairing this, there’s bad blood. C’mon guys,” she said.
But Barile said his requests had nothing to do with who was chairing the committee.
“I don’t care who’s chairing it,” he said. “The bottom line is the public should be able to see it. Who is chairing it—I couldn’t care less. People should be able to see it on the TV. With today’s technology, it’s doable.”
Schmitt ended the discussion but directed McDonough to reach out to Nelson, Pope & Voorhis to see how they want to handle the issues moving forward, noting that the consultants have worked with many other towns on such projects.
“Let’s talk to NPV and figure out the best way to bring the other board members in and get them involved and how to bring the public in so that we can make them aware of where we are procedurally, and they can understand what’s been done thus far,” he said. “If I have to sit out a meeting, I will sit out a meeting and you (Lombardi) can take my place.”
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