The Occupy New Paltz movement, located in Hasbrouck Park in the village, is coming under scrutiny.
The New Paltz Village Board has lent its support for the Occupiers to camp out, beyond the park’s curfew, and many Occupiers and residents voiced their support for the political movement that began on Wall Street and is now sweeping the nation and parts of the world in an attempt to vocalize concern about one percent of the American people holding almost all of the wealth, while the 99 percent struggle to make ends meet. But some residents are questioning the validity of the New Paltz Occupiers, their use of village electrical outlets, their taking over of the public park’s gazebo with food, coffeemakers, water and refuse.
One of these residents was Dan Ferrell, who spoke at the Village Board’s public input session. “I almost never come speak at a public forum, but the sequence of events with the Occupy movement in Hasbrouck Park,” he said, caused him enough concern that he did come out to speak his mind. Ferrell said that he is not someone who is “against this movement; they have made great strides and are maturing at a rapid rate. But what is happening here, in New Paltz, which you [the Village Board] have embraced, is not mature. It’s not centrally located; their message is not being seen; and what I’ve seen in my three trips there are a few tents with space heaters, computers, hot plates — all being run off from a public village electric line. Why are the taxpayers, who are part of the 99 percent, being forced to pay for this?”
Ferrell added that he feared for village liability if things took a bad turn — which they have already, with a sexual predator being arrested for molesting occupiers and another person, who was drunk and not an Occupier, tearing through the park, harassing people and spewing racial epithets. “God forbid something happens, is the village covered? Will our insurance cover this, even though these people are there in complete violation of our village code?”
Ferrell said that in places like Poughkeepsie, where Occupiers were forced out by the City Council from a much more “visible park,” and in Albany, where Occupiers now have a visible storefront, “the movement is making strides and becoming more active, more visible, getting their message across. I don’t see any of that here. Some of the people are well-intentioned, others are not; and regardless, their message, in a public park that is utilized by New Paltz families and sports groups and schools, is not being heard; yet it’s impeding use of the park that we all pay for. You can’t get to the gazebo because it’s filled with trash and coffee and water bottles and food and signs and whatnot. How can you justify that?”
Mayor Jason West said that this was the first that he has heard a complaint, and that he felt that the Occupiers were “very community-minded, and all it might take to rectify some of these issues is to speak with them. Our approval, based on the First Amendment and the right to free speech and assembly, was conditioned upon those that use the park adhering to our laws, as well as being conditioned upon any potential conflicts that would arise.”
West said that one “simple solution” could be to “ask the occupiers to pay for the electric they’re using.” There are 16 outlets at the park for public use during events. All that are working are being used by the Occupiers for space heaters, computers, coffeemakers, Christmas lights et cetera. He also said that it would be worthwhile to approach the Occupiers and ask them to clear out of the gazebo area so that others could use it as well.
Trustee Sally Rhoads said that she too has heard some of these complaints “regarding the use of village electricity and liability issues, and we will be discussing those. We said in the beginning that we would grant permission for use of the park unless issues arose.” Rhoads did add that the Occupiers had been protesting alongside Women in Black at the corner of Main and North Front Streets, “promoting their political message.”
This same discussion took place at the New Paltz Police Commission meeting when commissioner Justin Finnegan asked Police chief Joe Snyder if there had been any extra costs incurred by the police for the Occupy movement. The chief said that there had not been. “We did meet with them the first day they began their occupation,” he said. He also noted that the police were called to the camp to apprehend an alleged sex offender who had been moving from one Occupy group to the next and was arrested on two sexual assault charges.
There were other complaints — never formally made, but written to the New Paltz Times — about a drunken individual who was making abusive and threatening comments to the Occupiers, and another unofficial complaint about an intoxicated individual attempting to break into a car outside of St. Joseph’s Church and then running into the Occupied tent area.
Beyond the sex offender, the chief said that the police have received no additional complaints and that they were not running any extra patrols in that area. “So you’re not checking the park after it closes to see if there are individuals there who aren’t allowed to be there after dark?” asked commissioner Matt Aube. “No, we’re not,” said the Chief.
“But there could be others there, drinking, college students utilizing the park when it should be closed, and now the police are not issuing tickets,” Aube added.
“They’re siphoning off village electric for space heaters?” said commissioner Randall Leverette. “You have to be kidding me.” He also noted that the Village could be looking at a fire hazard if there were space heaters inside tents.
“So the 53 percent who do pay taxes are subsidizing this?” said Finnegan. “And they have garbage pickup, but our kids can’t use the gazebo.”
Trustee Brian Kimbiz was at the Police Commission meeting and explained that the Village Board was “revisiting” its motion. “I spoke with the attorney today, and even though our code does not allow them to be there past dark, freedom of speech usurps local laws.”
“This is a real thorny issue,” said Leverette. But the Police Commission noted that if it was not impacting the police budget, it was not the Commission’s issue to deal with. ++