With the Town Board’s reorganization meeting looming, elected leaders need to take a definitive stand on the residency status of its newest member, claims the runner-up in the Nov. 5 contest.
Democrat Katherine Daniels—who lost by 12 votes to Republican Thomas J. Moreo—is not questioning the results.
After absentee ballots were counted, Moreo had pulled 894 votes; Daniels, 882. Incumbent Republican Councilman Brent S. Golisano was handily reelected with 1,005 votes.
But Daniels, an attorney, and resident Andrew “Andy” Sternlieb, who also has a background in the law, both say the clock is ticking and voters deserve answers to legal questions surrounding Moreo’s qualifications. The swearing-in ceremony is set for early January.
Moreo was definitely a resident when he announced his candidacy. But he subsequently put his home up for sale and his family reportedly now lives out of state. (Moreo confirmed to this newspaper in late November that “unforeseen circumstances” will “eventually precipitate” his “full-time move out of state.”) Both he and GOP leaders were unable to remove his name from the ballot before the election. Moreo’s name did not appear in any campaign materials and he did not participate in any events.
However, he told this newspaper in late November: “While I am able to fulfill my duties and serve on the Town Council, I intend to so to the best of my ability and give the Town Board some additional time to find a suitable replacement. (sic)”
Supervisor Warren Lucas contends it is not up to the Town Board to determine whether Moreo is qualified to serve.
“He either is, or is not, a resident. Some legal person is going to decide that,” he said.
The board’s only options—if Moreo doesn’t take his seat or is sworn in and later resigns—is to appoint someone to fill it or leave it empty until next fall’s elections, the supervisor added.
Sternlieb, citing the “integrity” of local elections, this week wrote to Risa S. Sugarman, chief enforcement counsel for the state Board of Elections, asking for guidance.
The county Board of Elections is staying out of the fray, however, saying it’s only responsible for conducting and administering elections and certifying results.
“The issue of concern to me is whether Moreo is qualified to hold the office,” he told Sugarman, who declined this newspaper’s request for comment.
Sugarman wrote Sternlieb back on Tuesday, Dec. 17, to tell him: “It is not within the jurisdiction of the division to investigate the issues you present.”
So it’s even more crucial that the town makes it clear what it thinks the residency requirements are and whether Moreo meets them, Sternlieb said.
Lucas has publically agreed that more “scrutiny” is needed but also contends that, at this point in time, the ball is in Moreo’s court.
Republican Chair William Monti’s only comment—so far—was, “On Election Day, Nov. 5, the voters spoke.” Town counsel Roland A. Baroni Jr. has told Lucas that, if this eventually winds up in court, the town will have to hire an outside attorney.
This newspaper also reached out this week to Lucas, Monti and Moreo for further comment, but, as of press time, had not received any responses.
Sternlieb, a Democrat, insisted that it doesn’t matter what party occupies the post if Moreo can’t, or won’t, serve.
Even if Daniels winds up as the appointee or the town decides to leave the seat temporarily vacant, Republicans will “still have a majority” on the board, he said Tuesday, Dec. 17.
Sternlieb said he doesn’t know Moreo’s circumstances and does not “fault” him for putting his house on the market. He also does not blame the other Republican candidates for the present kerfuffle.
But, he argued, town leaders can no longer postpone taking a public stand on the residency issue.
“It’s not about politics, it’s about doing what’s right,” Sternlieb said.
Daniels, a former school board member, also weighed in this week.
Sternlieb, she said, “is asking a very important legal question about Thomas Moreo’s qualifications to be sworn in. He deserves an answer. We all do.”
Even if Moreo meets the residency requirements and is sworn in, would he be able to attend the Town Board’s twice-monthly meetings if he is physically living elsewhere, Daniels wondered.
In a letter to Lucas, Sternlieb referenced a state public officers law which, he said, treats residence and domicile—a person’s fixed, permanent and principal home for legal purposes—the same.
People can be away from their primary residences for legitimate reasons, if, for instance, they own multiple homes, are serving in the military or are temporarily in a nursing home or rehab facility, he said.
If someone’s primary residence is in question, the courts can look at determining factors such as tax returns, driver’s licenses and insurance policies.
Daniels was also curious to know whether Moreo would be available in person to meet with citizens seeking his help or advice or to attend town events and regional meetings on issues affecting it.
“Will he be residing in North Salem like those who have voted for him and the other Town Board candidates?” she asked.
“I think we all can agree that what happened in this election was highly unusual,” Daniels said. “Moreo did not inform North Salem’s residents about his move to Florida with his family. Many residents are learning about this move now for the first time.”
Moreo’s promise to serve until a “suitable replacement” can be found are “inconsistent with statements made by the Republican Party in the lead-up to the election,” she claimed.
Daniels alleged that politics could be in play.
“While some might excuse the Republicans for trying to take advantage of this unexpected turn of events, transparency and integrity in the election process really do matter. There is nothing more fundamental to a democracy,” she said.