North Salem, N.Y. – The Town Board, responding to the COVID-19 threat, will be holding a special meeting on Thursday, March 19, in order to declare a “disaster emergency.”
The board is also expected to vote on filling a councilman position that had been intended, a proposed resolution said, “to be left open through this fall election.”
But that was before the coronavirus crisis hit. Now, if someone falls ill, it “may create an issue for the Town Board to attain a quorum for its meetings with a four person board,” the proposed resolution went on.
If the resolution passes, that person would be Robert Daros, a Croton Falls businessman who was recently tapped by the town Republican Committee to for the position in November.
The appointee would fill the council position “for a term to expire December 31, 2020,” the resolution reads.
Daros, who owns Heritage Fuel, has already accepted the town’s request to act as its liaison for the Croton Falls Master Plan.
The proposed resolution has prompted responses from Democrats ranging from disappointment to warnings that the town may be in violation of the open meetings law.
Both of these were expressed Tuesday, March 17, by Katherine Daniels, the Democrat who lost to Republican Thomas J. Moreo by 12 votes last year.
Although Daniels had said recently that she would serve if appointed, she felt that it would be more fair to all involved to have a special election in the fall. Anyone appointed would still have to run, but would obviously have a “leg up” on the competition, she said.
Both Daniels, a former school board member, and Daros had been circulating nominating petitions to get on the ballot. Both reportedly have accumulated the required number of signatures.
Moreo and the town Republican Committee had tried to get his name off the ballot in 2019 after he put his home up for sale and reportedly moving his family out of state. He didn’t campaign. After he won the election, questions were raised about residency requirements.
Moreo waited until late December to tell the town said he couldn’t serve, putting it in the awkward spot of trying to decide what to do. It could either leave the seat open until a special election or appoint someone to fill it.
Westchester County and many municipalities in the region, including the neighboring town of Somers, where there is one confirmed COVID-19 case, have declared states of emergency, which are situations that allow governments to increase certain powers.
North Salem, as of March 18, does not have any confirmed cases of the highly contagious disease.
Because Westchester is under a state of emergency – in which schools, restaurants, public facilities, and even parks have been closed – town halls are required to cut their seating capacities at meetings in half.
If that is, for instance, 100, then only 50 people would be allowed in the room at the same time.
Looking to the future, the Town Board is also set to vote Thursday on a resolution on videoconferencing for its and other public meetings.
Emily Siegel, chair of the North Salem Democratic Committee, said Wednesday that since Supervisor Warren Lucas has declared that he wants to “fill the vacant seat on the Town Board,” he “could appoint Katherine Daniels, the Democratic candidate who had 12 votes less than the Republican candidate who won the last election in absentia.”
Or, she said, the town could appoint someone to sit on the board for “the remaining term under the stipulation that he or she (is) not to run for the full term in November (sic)”
“The option also remains to leave the seat open completely and allow the democratic process to decide in the upcoming general election in November,” Siegel said.
Siegel accused Lucas of stacking the deck in Daros’ favor “to run as ‘the incumbent’ and against not only Katherine Daniels, but against all the Democrats of North Salem.”
“They definitely deserve a larger voice on the Town Board,” she added.
Bill Monti, chair of the North Salem Republican Committee, said Wednesday that “as a North Salem resident I am pleased to learn that the town may have a fully functioning Town Council for the benefit of residents.”
“When residents went to the polls last November they voted for people whose standards would best serve the interests of our Town,” he said. “My expectation is that the current sitting members will appoint the person to fill the vacancy who best represents the standards the electorate chose last November. I am pleased with the consideration being given to Mr. Daros for this position.”
Siegel pointed out Wednesday that the board currently consists of Lucas and two other Republicans: Brent Golisano and Peter Kamenstein. Martin Aronchick is the “lone Democrat.”
If Daros is appointed instead of Daniels, “the board will continue to lack diversity and over half of our town will continue to be underrepresented,” she said.
Daniels “has in the past served this town in varying capacities, including as an elected member of the school board,” Siegel said, adding: “She also brings her experience as a woman, a wife and a mother to this time of crisis; attributes not shared by any existing or presumptive council member.”
In a letter to Lucas which was shared with The North Salem News, Daniels said she was “extremely disappointed to learn that the Board made a decision to appoint by Republican opponent to fill the vacancy on the Town Board.”
That decision “appears to have been made behind closed doors in violation of the Open Meetings Law,” she said.
Announcing it at an “emergency meeting,” one that “cannot be attended by members of the public who are abiding by instructions from federal, state and local public health authorities to avoid public gatherings.”
“This has effectively deprived me and other members of the public of the right to attend the meeting, listen to your justifications for making the appointment now and note any objections.”
Lucas said there is a way for folks to virtually attend the meeting. At the appointed time, in this case 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, they can go to the town’s website at northsalemny.org, click on the agendas & meetings button, then on the “streaming video support” link. They will be able to watch the proceedings – with a slight 20-second delay. To comment, they can email Lucas at email@example.com.
They can also attend the meeting in person, but bearing in mind the advice about “social distancing,” folks need to keep six feet apart.
The meeting room normally has about 40 seats. Lucas plans on moving the seats six feet apart, he said Wednesday.
Daniels letter to Lucas continued: “You have stated on more than one occasion that local government should not be partisan. I agree, and I trust that you have the Town’s best interest at heart. However, this decision and the way it is being handled smacks of partisanship and will be perceived as an effort to exploit a public health crisis for strategic gain.”
Both Lucas and Daros have reserved comment on the situation until the Town Board acts on the proposed resolutions Thursday.
As North Salem and other municipalities struggle to figure things out during the ongoing health crisis, virtual governance may be one solution.
Daniels urged the town to use its “technical expertise and the considerable resources available to you through IBM and others (Zoom, Skype, etc.) to figure out a way to make the meeting accessible to the public.”
Jinx Remson, a member of the town’s Recreation Advisory Committee, wrote to Lucas this week to say she was “distressed” about the proposed resolution to make an appointment instead of leaving the seat open until the election.
Whoever wins it this fall will only be serving three years, the remainder of Moreo’s term.
“For many years the Democrats have supported you as supervisor. I now wonder if that support will continue,” she wrote.
Andy Sternlieb, a resident who had been urging the board to announce a decision – one way or the other – about filling the spot or leaving it open until an election in the fall – this week told Lucas that after reading the agenda he didn’t “see what the emergency is.”
As supervisor, he has the power “to declare a disaster emergency (item #1) without board approval. Items No. 3-5 are things that could wait for a regularly scheduled meeting.”
(The board’s next regularly scheduled meeting in April 14.)
Item #2 on Thursday’s agenda is the appointment of a new board member.
“You have a functioning board of four members, so what’s the rush, what’s changed. Pushing through this appointment under these circumstances is sketchy and gives the appearance of forcing through a partisan decision under the cloak of an emergency situation,” Sternlieb wrote. “I can only surmise that you called this meeting only for the purpose of pushing through this appointment and only after knowing you had 3 votes already lined up. If so, that’s a violation of the open meetings rules.”
Since folks are being told not to gather in large numbers, there are residents that won’t be able to “interact on the record with their publicly elected officials,” he said.
Lucas said Wednesday that he plans to keep his computer open during the meeting and that people can email their comments to him if they are not there in person.
“Decisions made in the dark of night go against our democratic system,” Sternlieb added in his letter to the supervisor.
Sternlieb emphasized that is concerns had nothing to do with Daros.
“I’ve known Bobby for 30 years – I like him, I’ve been a customer for that period of time. If he wins an election, I would have no qualms about him serving. All I know is that if there had been a women on the board these shenanigans wouldn’t have happened,” Sternlieb said.