NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - Questions over the residential qualifications of an incoming councilman have spurred at least one concerned citizen to beseech North Salem officials to do whatever they legally can to “uphold the integrity” of local elections.
Andrew “Andy” M. Sternlieb appeared before the Town Board on Tuesday, Dec. 3, to tell it that it is “on notice” that Thomas Moreo, who was elected in November, “doesn’t live in town.”
Moreo, a Republican, was definitely a resident when he got on the ballot. But the “unforeseen circumstances” that subsequently forced him to put his home on the market will, he wrote in a Nov. 25 email to this newspaper, “eventually precipitate” his “full-time relocation out of state.”
However, he wrote: “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).”
Sternlieb said Tuesday at the council meeting that he did not “fault” the councilman-elect for his reported move to Florida. Moreo tried to get his name off the ballot, but was told by county elections officials that he couldn’t, either because a deadline had passed or because he was the legal owner of his house until it was purchased by someone else.
Sternlieb, a retired real estate investment banker with a background in law, hastened to add that he didn’t think anything underhanded was going on, just that folks weren’t clear exactly what the residency requirements were.
“All I can say is he lives in Florida. His family lives in Florida. I don’t know many people who move from a high tax base (like New York’s) to Florida who don’t declare their residency in Florida for tax purposes,” said Sternlieb, who had served on the school district’s fiscal advisory committee.
While some cities do, towns apparently don’t have such rules written in stone. But state election law should apply in these cases, in the opinions of both Supervisor Warren Lucas and town counsel Roland A. Baroni Jr.
At any rate, the county Board of Elections is steering well clear of the controversy.
It’s not “punting” because it simply doesn’t have a dog in the fight, according to Tajian Nelson, executive assistant to Democratic Election Commissioner Reginald Lafayette.
The county only conducts and administers elections and certifies results. It doesn’t weigh in on such matters, she said.
Nelson confirmed last week that certification letters are being sent out to all the winners, but wouldn’t say anything about Moreo in particular except that he “was the top vote-getter.”
“It’s up to North Salem—when it’s time for the swearing in—to have all its ducks in a row,” she said.
Lucas agreed Tuesday, Dec. 3, that more “scrutiny” is called for, but, at this point in time, the ball is still in Moreo’s court.
“Look, you’re talking to a group of people who have no decision in the process,” the supervisor told Sternlieb.
“He either is or is not a resident. Some legal person is going to determine that,” said Lucas.
“If he’s not a resident, he’s not going to get sworn in. If he is, and he wants to be sworn in, and he meets the requirements, he’s going to get sworn in.”
Baroni, who advises the town on legal matters, has told the supervisor that, if this eventually winds up in court, the town will have to engage outside counsel.
According to Lucas, the town’s only options—if Moreo doesn’t take his seat or is sworn in and resigns, immediately or sometime down the road—is to appoint someone to fill the post or leave it empty until next fall’s elections.
Katherine Daniels, the Democratic runner-up and former school board member, thinks that—based on “past practices”—she should be that appointee.
After absentee ballots were counted, Moreo beat Daniels by 12 votes. He pulled 894; she, 882. Incumbent Republican Councilman Brent Golisano polled 1,005 votes.
In a letter to Lucas two days later, Sternlieb referred to the state’s public officers law, which, he said, treats residence and domicile (which the dictionary defines as a person’s “fixed, permanent, and principal home for legal purposes”) “as one in the same.”
People can be away from their primary residence for legitimate reasons; if, for instance, they own multiple homes, are serving in the military or are temporarily placed in a nursing home, he told this reporter.
If someone’s primary residency is in question, the courts can look at determining factors such as tax returns, driver’s licenses, insurance policies and professional licenses.
“You can also assume,” Sternlieb told Lucas in the email, “that the court would look to where one’s family resides and where one’s children are enrolled in school, as these are good indicators of intent and where one resides.”
“Putting his property up for sale is also a good indication that Moreo is not temporarily located in Florida and does not have a ‘continuing attachment’ to North Salem,” Sternlieb wrote.
In his Nov. 25 statement, Moreo insisted he remained committed to his town and those who voted for him. “I know that my skills and dedication that have served the community well in the past will continue to serve North Salem well as we move forward,” he wrote.
Sternlieb, who now works in education advocacy, said that he couldn’t remember anything like this happening in the 30 years he’s lived in town.
“I’m just saying that the town, the board, should be on notice that it is an issue, and he should not take the oath of office,” he said.
Sternlieb also said he does not blame others on the Republican slate.
“You did the right thing,” he told the Town Board, referring to the absence of Moreo’s name or image on campaign materials. “But you knew the guy was not here.”
“Other than making sure the person qualifies, which I think is something the town has to do, I have no control,” Lucas told Sternlieb.
“That’s all I ask. That somebody come out and say ‘These are the residency requirements.’ If he takes the oath, and he’s not a resident, he’s going to suffer the consequences. If he meets the requirements and he doesn’t take the oath, then you (the Town Board) will do what the law requires,” Sternlieb responded, referring to either appointing a new person or leaving the seat vacant.
Sternlieb said he was not raising these concerns because of politics. He urged the board to find out if it has a legal obligation to prevent Moreo from being sworn in—if he isn’t a resident. “Otherwise, the board is complicit—the board must uphold the integrity of our elections,” he added.
At the very least, Sternlieb contended in his Dec. 5 note, the board should “secure from Moreo an attestation under penalty of perjury that he is a resident of North Salem per the requirements of state law.”
It could not be learned by press time what the town’s response was to Sternlieb’s requests. The paper also reached out last week to Moreo for further clarification of his intentions. And, as of Friday, Dec. 6, Democratic Committee co-chair Emily Jonas Siegel was still mulling her response to Moreo’s Nov. 25 statement. Republican Committee chair William Monti’s only comment, post-vote, was “On Election Day, Nov. 5th (sic) the voters spoke.”