After more than three hours of discussion and public comment, New Paltz’s elected officials essentially opted to delay a March 19 public referendum on the merger of the village and town. Dec. 6’s emergency meeting featured a tense exchange, complete with a threatened walkout from town Councilman Jeff Logan — and a debate during which both Mayor Jason West and Supervisor Susan Zimet looked at times red-faced, angry and annoyed. Citizens who showed up for public comment complained about a lack of transparency in setting up the meeting — notice of which was sent out only two days earlier on Dec. 4.
At issue during the meeting was a vote to hire the Manhattan-based law firm Squire Sanders for $75,000 to develop a legal framework to allow the village to be expanded outward to the boundaries of the Town of New Paltz. If endorsed by both boards and the voters, it would make the Village Board the one and only local government in town.
Why the boards waited
Mayor West has recently come out as a vocal critic of the idea of merging the town and village — at least in the way Deputy Mayor Sally Rhoads and Supervisor Zimet want to proceed. While not against consolidation itself, he thinks the avid pro-consolidation members of the two boards are rushing — sans facts — toward a public vote.
“It’s not even a rush to judgment without all of the facts in; it’s a rush to judgment with no regard for the fact that facts are important — on the gamble that this is going to pay off,” the mayor said.
West criticized Zimet for forcing a decision on hiring the attorney before all of the subcommittees studying the government merger had reported their findings. One of the most important of those committees — the Finance Committee, on which Zimet and Rhoads both sit — was meant to submit its report on Monday, Dec. 10. That report spells out exactly what money would be saved if the two municipalities became a “townwide village.”
None of the three subcommittee reports currently completed have been widely distributed. There have been no public hearings held. The mayor said he couldn’t understand why they should hire a lawyer to write a merger plan without that information.
“We don’t need it right this second, and we may not need it at all if the Finance Committee report shows that there’s really not much traction to moving forward with the consolidation,” West said. “I understand that’s not what it says, but you’re the only two people around here who know that.”
Earlier in the meeting, the mayor had disputed the validity of those committee reports — which were developed by elected officials and citizen volunteers. For Deputy Mayor Rhoads, that last remark seemed one step over the line. She cut off West to defend the work done by the committees, saying that people were aware of their work.
“Anyone who watches television knows it,” she said.
Subcommittee meetings were aired on public access Channel 23. However — like most cable public access stations — its programs suffer from little to no production value, occasionally with bad audio and awkward camera angles. When hours-long municipal meetings are broadcast, it’s not unusual for town or village board members to reference documents never shown or explained to viewers at home. Municipal conversations are often waged in a technobabble shorthand of near-incomprehensible jargon.
“It’s unfair to expect some people to watch hours of meetings to understand some of this,” the mayor responded.
In turn, board members who support consolidation countered that West was using delay as a tactic to kill the potential merger. By opting to wait, the two governments will miss out on the opportunity of potential state funding in 2013. Any tax relief under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Citizen Empowerment Tax Credits would have to wait until 2014.
“If we don’t take action tonight, or at least very soon, to hire somebody and get us moving, I truly don’t think we’re going anywhere,” Zimet said. “I think we’re just going to go in circles, and I think we’re going to continue to go in circles.”
Village Board member Stewart Glenn said he thought critics of consolidation weren’t seeing the promise of what could come from a unified New Paltz.
“I know from what I do for a living that it’s easy to argue against anything — because nothing is perfect,” he said. “At times, it seems, in this process that there are those in this community that are against it apparently — and delay is what they have in mind.”
Glenn did not name names in his statement, but Mayor West took offense to idea that the call for delay was meant as a merger killer.
“You mentioned opponents delaying — as if there’s some manipulation going on at some level,” he said. “There’s not a single person here that I heard from who said they were opposed to anything. What people are opposed to is not having all the facts in front of them.”
Ariana Basco, with the Village Board, said she saw a lot of practical efficiencies with unifying the two governments. For instance, longstanding inter-municipal fights over shared resources — such as Moriello Park Pool, police and fire — would automatically end if New Paltz was governed by one board. Discrepancies between the two zoning codes would also melt away when a new comprehensive zoning map was adopted. But Basco also said she feared the public would reject consolidation if they felt the process was rushed or secretive. She also called for a delay — mostly because New Paltzians had very little time to find out about the meeting.
“This right now tonight feels wrong,” she said. “And for me, I said this to someone earlier, this doesn’t pass the sniff test. And that’s just how I feel about having this meeting tonight, when I know that it’s true that there’d be more people here for the public comment if the public knew about it.”
Basco wasn’t alone in her worry. Village and town officials — and some members of the public — said they feared voters would torpedo a merger if they didn’t understand the need for it.
The trustee said she wanted to set up an eventual public referendum once all the facts were known and the public had a chance to weigh in and respond. If they rushed ahead and stumbled, people might conclude that “this is a mess.”
“I feel like I’m arguing for something I’m not really in favor of, because I do want to move forward,” Basco said. “But if we vote on that and we pull back — that just looks terrible.”
Town Councilwoman Kitty Brown agreed. “I want to have a well-informed public say, ‘This is a great idea’ and support it. And I think they will, but I don’t think we can get there by March 26.”
For quick reference, town and village officials had already missed the statutory deadline to set the referendum, as originally intended, on March 19. Instead, they were aiming to have the public vote on consolidation a week later on March 26.
Eventually, members of the Village Board voted 5-0 to delay. Town Board members joined them with a 4-0 vote for delay, with Councilwoman Jean Gallucci absent.