YORKTOWN, N.Y. - Yorktown Councilman Vishnu Patel is alleging his colleagues violated the New York State Open Meetings Law by discussing staffing issues in private, directly contradicting directives handed down earlier in the week by a state judge.
The incident occurred just days after a New York State Supreme Court appearance in which Judge Linda Jamieson gave a warning to Town Attorney Mike McDermott that any discussion of creating a new town position could not be held in private. Patel says that’s exactly what the Town Board did on Thursday, Jan. 28, in the first of its four scheduled closed meetings (executive sessions), which were created to conduct performance reviews of employees in every town department.
“For example, they discussed creating the new position of a deputy town engineer, a staffing issue Justice Jamieson specifically told the town attorney had to be conducted in open session,” Patel said. “They also discussed the Depot Square project and how a deputy town engineer could work on the project.”
Earlier this month, the Town Board accepted the resignation of acting town engineer Sharon Robinson and agreed, by a unanimous vote, that it would seek applications for a new engineer and a deputy town engineer. Robinson had been a consultant for the town and the two new positions would be in-house.
The board also scheduled four additional meetings expected to be held in private on Jan. 28, Feb. 3, Feb. 11 and Feb. 17. The board can hold meetings in private if they deal with particular employees, according to the New York State Open Meetings Law.
Skeptical the board would be discussing only performance reviews, former Yorktown councilwoman and supervisor Susan Siegel filed a petition to have the meetings opened. She believed the board would in fact be discussing staffing issues, including the two new possible positions in the engineering department. These discussions would have to be held in public, Siegel argued, because they directly affect the budget and Yorktown taxpayers. Judge Jamieson agreed.
“That is open for discussion before the community,” Jamieson told McDermott on Jan. 26, according to the official court transcript. “Because it will add jobs, it will impact the budget, and it will have a direct effect upon the citizens of Yorktown.”
The first meeting was held Jan. 28 in the supervisor’s office at Town Hall. Patel, the lone Democrat on the board, did not attend the court appearance but said he was aware of Jamieson’s verbal directive. Once the topic of staffing allegedly came up about two-and-a-half hours into the closed-door meeting, Patel said he left in protest.
“I walked out of the executive session in protest after having advised the other board members, and the town attorney, that they were discussing subjects that, by law, could not be discussed in executive session and which were not discussions of the employment history of particular persons,” Patel said.
Supervisor Michael Grace denies the discussion about hiring a deputy town engineer took place and told Yorktown News that Patel was simply looking for a “gotcha” moment. He said the allegations are “completely manufactured” and accused Patel of “political gamesmanship.”
“We painstakingly went over what the ground rules for these meetings were,” Grace said. “No decisions were made. They are going to be fact-finding work sessions to get an idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of all the individuals of each particular department.”
He said Patel revealing anything discussed in executive session is a “breach of confidentially,” and said he will be looking into the legal ramifications of Patel’s statement to the media.
“It’s not appropriate for him to share information that was discussed in an executive session,” Grace said. “It’s terrible for morale of the employees to think their performance evaluations are going to be open to public scrutiny. That’s a complete breach of the public trust.”
Patel said his statements are not a violation of the law.
“I take my oath as an elected official to uphold the law seriously,” Patel said. “There is no prohibition in law that prevents me from letting my constituents know that certain subjects were discussed by their elected officials behind closed doors in violation of the Open Meetings Law. For a discussion to be considered ‘confidential,’ it must specifically be exempted from public disclosure by state or federal statute.”
McDermott, however, said Patel is wrong and that the New York State Open Meetings Law strictly prohibits public disclosure of any discussions in closed session.
“The employees of the town must have confidence that anything said by them or about them in connection with their employment will be held confidential,” McDermott said. “No Town Board member has the authority to decide which statements made in executive session are confidential or not confidential.”
Meanwhile, Grace accused Patel and Siegel of working together, saying that Siegel is Patel’s “puppetmaster.” He also criticized Siegel for what he said was a “complete waste of town staff time and resources” by taking Yorktown to court last week.
“It seems Ms. Siegel cannot accept she is no longer on the Town Board,” Grace said. “After years of pedantic criticisms, which only served to drag matters out to an inch of their demise, Siegel objects to additional work sessions to do the necessary work of the town.”
Siegel, however, said the real “waste of town resources” would be if Yorktown had to defend itself against a lawsuit from violating the Open Meetings Law.