At the Clarkstown Town Board Meeting held on Tuesday, May 03, 2016 questions were raised by Nanuet resident Jim Flynn and former Bardonia resident, Michael Hull, as to several meetings chaired by former Supervisor Alex Gromack just prior to the November 2015 election in which a majority of the Democratic Town Board members were present in apparent violation of the Open Meetings Law (OML) of New York State.
What is a meeting according to OML ?
The term “meeting” is defined as “the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business.” As such, when a quorum (a majority of the membership of a public body) gathers for the purpose of discussing public business, the meeting must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take action and regardless of the manner in which the gathering may be characterized. The Law requires that notice of the time and place of all meetings be given prior to every meeting. Notice to the public must be accomplished by posting in one or more designated public locations, and posting online. Notice must be given to the news media; there is no requirement that notice be published in the newspaper.
In records obtained from the Town of Clarkstown it is evident that the topic of one meeting held in the presence of a majority of the Town Board concerned the CSEA contract. That contract became a contentious issue in a subsequent vote held to approve it when it was strongly opposed by Republicans Hoehmann and Borelli who claimed they had been excluded from the final discussions leading up to the ratification of the contract with the CSEA.
According to the Journal News, Supervisor-elect George Hoehmann denounced the deal as the product of “backroom politics” that was negotiated in secret without his or fellow Republican Frank Borelli’s knowledge. He claimed he only learned about the deal when he saw a flier at Town Hall.
“I’m absolutely outraged,” Hoehmann told The Journal News. “This is nothing more than a political giveaway to the unions that backed Supervisor Gromack and Councilwoman [Shirley] Lasker in the election. I can only assume based on the timing they had some sort of backroom handshake deal arranged before the election.”
Councilwoman Lasker dismissed his claims. “Nobody is working behind anybody’s back,” Lasker said. “If George wants to start his tenure by playing politics that’s up to him.”
CSEA members subsequently received a 2 percent increase in 2016, a 2.25 percent raise in 2017, a 2.5 percent raise in 2018 and a 2.75 percent increase in 2019. They were receiving 2 percent raises under the contract that expired December 31, 2015.
Asked about the contract Gromack prevaricated saying: “I haven’t seen the final contract, we left it to the negotiating team.”
In the light of the documentation now uncovered in a Freedom of Information request for relevant town records this absurd statement that Gromack was not involved with two other members of his administration in the details of the CSEA contract has now been proven to be an outright lie. That fact based on the holding of two apparently illegal town board meetings was brought to the attention of the Town Attorney at the Tuesday town board meeting in a formal letter read to the Town Board by Flynn who stated:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Town Board, my name is Jim Flynn and I am a resident of Nanuet.
Over the past three or more years Michael Hull, Michael Hirsch, Tom Nimick and others including myself have repeatedly questioned the former Town Board headed by Supervisor Gromack about its compliance with the Open Meetings Laws of New York State.
At one of the last Town Board meetings of the Gromack administration in late 2015 during which the new CSEA contract was voted into force by a three to two vote, with then Councilman Hoehmann and Councilman Borelli both voting AGAINST the terms of the contract, they made statements to the effect that they had both been excluded from meetings in which the terms of the CSEA contract were discussed. They also said that they were totally unaware that the CSEA contract had been finalized until they saw a memo posted in the Town’s elevator informing the public that a ratification vote would be held by the CSEA membership.
Councilwoman Hausner, you were particularly forceful in your statements during the Town Board meeting at which the CSEA contract was approved that there were NO meetings held about the CSEA contract from which Hoehmann and Borelli were excluded. Indeed, you gave listeners the impression that they were misleading if not actually lying to the public with their statements.
Ms. Hausner I have been given documents obtained by Mr. Hull through a FOIL to the Town of Clarkstown in which he requested copies of the records of any meeting at which three or more Town Board members were present for the years 2014 and 2015. In response to his FOIL Hull received hundreds of pages of calendar entries detailing for those two years all meetings attended by each member of the town board which were both announced and unannounced to the public.
With reference to your statement that there were NO Town Board discussions concerning any matter from which Hoehmann and Borelli were excluded I have two entries of Mr. Gromack’s calendar dated Thursday, September 24, 2015 and Tuesday, September 29, 2015 to which I would like to direct your attention and receive your response.
In the first entry dated September 24, 2015 the calendar indicates that Supervisor Gromack held a “budget” meeting which was attended by three town board members namely, Supervisor Gromack, Councilwoman Hausner and Councilwoman Lasker. Also in attendance were two other individuals who do not need to be named but neither of whom were Councilman Hoehmann or Councilman Borelli.
In the second meeting dated September 29, 2015 Mr. Gromack’s calendar indicates that the subject of his meeting that morning was the CSEA contract. In attendance at that meeting were again three Town Board members namely Supervisor Gromack, Councilwoman Hausner and Councilwoman Lasker and one other individual who I shall not name but who was not either Councilmen Hoehmann or Borelli. (Editor’s note – that individual appears to have been the attorney negotiating the CSEA contract.)
As you know Councilwoman Hausner, the Open Meetings Law defines a Town Board meeting as any meeting at which there is a majority of the Town Board members present. In the case of this town board that majority number is three. Further according to the Open Meetings Law it is a violation of the law for the town board to discuss ANY matter related to town business without announcing it to the public EVEN if that meeting is to be held in Executive Session.
Councilwoman Hausner: Would you please explain why on the two occasions I have mentioned Supervisor Gromack, Councilwoman Lasker and yourself held illegal Town Board meetings in which you discussed matters pertaining to the budget of the Town of Clarkstown and pertaining to the CSEA contract with the Town of Clarkstown?
I will now will hand a copy of my comments and the two documents to which I have just made reference to each of the Town Board members and to the Town Attorney. I am formally requesting that you respond to my questions publicly this evening before this meeting adjourns.
Further, I ask that the Town Attorney provide me with a written opinion at his convenience as to whether your attendance at these two meetings requires examination by the Board of Ethics of the Town of Clarkstown.
Councilwoman Hausner immediately sought to dismiss Flynn’s statements saying that meetings were held that were “caucuses of the Democratic Party“. Yet, she did not explain why the Democratic Party would hold a “caucus” in Supervisor Gromack’s office at the Town Hall, during an official day of work for the town supervisor which began at 8:00 a.m and why the town attorney involved in negotiating the CSEA contract would be present at such a “caucus“.
Seeing that her explanation was not holding up to the minimum standards of credibility, Councilwoman Hausner later declared that an examination of her calendar on her cellphone did not show any meetings mentioned by Mr. Flynn on her “calendar“.
Here is a transcript of Councilwoman Hausner’s remarks in which at times she appeared to stumble through her reply covering it with a veneer of dismissive arrogance:
Hoehmann: Ms. Hausner, there was a comment from Mr. Flynn. Do you care to address that?
Hausner: Oh, sure! …. So there is something under the Open Meetings Law called a ‘caucus’. The County Legislature on I think both sides of the aisle regularly have caucuses; I think pretty much on a weekly, regular or monthly when they have their meetings basis. The same happens in the Assembly and in the State Senate and in various towns across the country and across the county certainly. So .. I .. you know … It’s very interesting you can use my words however you would like. However we did not have a Town Board meeting – we had a Democratic caucus meeting and the Republican members of the town board are free to have Republican caucus meetings amongst themselves. That is something that is allowed for within the Open Meetings Law and within New York State Law and so that I think answers your question.
Borelli: You left out one point though. Isn’t the point of a political caucus to discuss political items and not to discuss town business? You were discussing town business. Isn’t that the issue?
Hausner: No, my Understanding is that the caucus of a body .. I mean … you mean … certainly a caucus .. a different kind of caucus of a body can discuss town matters of governmental matters.
Borelli/Hausner talking over each other: The CSEA contract was the subject of the meeting!
Hausner (sarcastically): You can have a caucus to discuss town matters .. Sure! Have a glass!
Hoehmann: I want to clarify. I have chosen as supervisor to not conduct that practice. You know, Ms. Hausner, we can all agree that when we had discussions when we were interviewing potential candidates for positions as a Board, when we were interviewing for the consultants for the police department, that I went out of my way to set up opportunities for two council members to meet and rotate through. I think it is important to respect the spirit of the law and I will not follow in the footsteps of my predecessor who routinely had meetings apparently with three members (of the town board) under the understanding that it was a caucus. I will have to look into the information that Mr. Flynn foiled (Mr. Hull foiled for the documents) for those particular dates and see what that was but certainly I was not invited to any meeting involving three members of the Town Board to have a discussion last year on any matters involving the CSEA. I think that was the point that was made in December (when Hoehmann and Borelli claimed they had been excluded from the CSEA negotiations). So apparently there was some type of discussion that took place about the CSEA involving three members of the Town Board which in my mind is town business. It is not something I will do in my administration.
Hausner (defensively): I just want to clarify one thing. I mean I was not the supervisor of the town really at any point ever. I am a Democratic member of the town board right now and so I think for members of the town board or members of the public to penalize me or criticize me for decisions of the former supervisor who may have been of my party is not proper. I said I was part of meetings that were caucus meetings – I don’t have my calendar – I guess I could bring it up on my phone ….. (Later in the meeting) ….. I looked at my calendar during the proceedings and it hasn’t that particular date on my calendar. I just want to clarify that. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t in town hall for a meeting on that particular date. It’s on my calendar. I don’t want to be held to something that I did when I don’t have a record of me doing it at that time. Did caucus meetings occur? Yes. And so I think that is sufficient to answer your question.
Michael Hull then addressed the Town Attorney, Lino Sciarretta, as follows:
My name is Michael Hull – I am a former resident of Clarkstown. My question is directed to you, the Town Attorney.
For many years myself, Tom Nimick and others fought to have THIS town board obey the Open Meetings Law. The Open Meetings Law states clearly that when three or more town board members meet that is a “Town Board Meeting“.
I have gone through the calendars of Mr. Gromack’s official schedule. On two dates shown on his schedule, in his office, in this building, while he was acting in his official role of town supervisor, he held meetings the subject of which did not say were ‘Democratic Caucus Meetings‘. The subject matter for one meeting was the ‘Budget‘ and the second was the ‘CSEA‘ contract. Furthermore, there were other attendees at the CSEA meeting whose names appear on Mr. Gromack’s calendar.
I would ask you to give me a ruling – at your convenience – as to whether or not those two meetings constitute under the Open Meetings Law ‘Town Board Meetings’ or do they constitute properly held ‘Democratic Party Caucus Meetings‘.
When asked by Supervisor Hoehmann if the Town Attorney would like to respond he replied that he would need time to review all of the documents.
We shall update this story once we receive the Town Attorney’s response.