Typically, a Town Board’s last meeting of the year is a quiet affair — a time for tying up loose ends and making official proclamations of appreciation to public servants whose terms of office are coming to a close. Matters of significant importance are traditionally left to the incoming board to wrestle with at its first convening in the New Year, known as the “organizational” meeting.
When the Rosendale Town Board held its final meeting of 2013 on Dec. 11, the usual plaques were handed out and warm-and-fuzzy speeches made. But then, recently reelected and cross-endorsed town supervisor Jeanne Walsh stirred up a potential hornet’s nest of controversy by orchestrating a carefully choreographed sequence of resignations and appointments. The result, and Walsh’s apparent intent, was the reappointment for one more year of longtime councilman Ken Hassett, whose two-year term was ending after his reelection bid this past November failed.
Two Town Board members’ terms were set to expire as of Dec. 31: Republican Hassett and Democrat Manna Jo Greene, who is moving on to become Rosendale’s representative in the Ulster County Legislature. Democratic candidates Jen Metzger and Chris Pryslopski — former chairs of the Rosendale Environmental Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, respectively — were elected to fill Hassett and Greene’s slots on the Town Board effective Jan. 1, 2014. Hassett took third place in the election, with 881 votes to Metzger’s 1,162 and Pryslopski’s 1,043.
But a third vacancy on the Town Board was expected to open up effective Jan. 1, following incumbent Republican Bob Gallagher’s resignation to take up his new post of Rosendale’s highway superintendent. Rather than allow the newly configured board, with two Democrats and one Republican (incumbent Bob Ryan), to nominate and vote for candidates for Gallagher’s replacement, Walsh staged a complicated parliamentary maneuver last Wednesday night that returned Hassett to the board to fill out the final year of Gallagher’s term without input from the two election victors.
First, Walsh moved to accept Hassett’s resignation, effective immediately. Then she nominated former Rosendale Republican Committee chair Otto Scherrieble as a placeholder on the board for the last three weeks of Hassett’s term. With only Greene voting “No,” Scherrieble was sworn in on the spot.
Next, retiring highway superintendent Carl Hornbeck tendered his resignation effective Dec. 22 instead of Dec. 31, the timing of which Walsh claimed was necessary “for retirement purposes.” Then Walsh nominated Hassett to finish out the last year of Gallagher’s term. Again, only Greene voted against Walsh’s motion.
Asked by Greene to walk through the steps of what had just happened one more time for clarification’s sake, Walsh stated, “I’m happy to go on record as saying I believe Ken [Hassett] is the best person for this position. He’s given his life to this town. He’s put in 16 years as town councilman and I believe he’s the most qualified for the position. We are going to have two new councilpeople on the board and a new clerk and I think it’s in the town’s benefit to have an experienced councilperson on the board.”
Finally Gallagher, who had already tendered his resignation, was appointed to fill out the rest of Hornbeck’s term, effective Dec. 23. Hornbeck was appointed building manager for the new Rondout Community Center in the former Rosendale Elementary School, a part-time position.
Walsh’s rationale for her actions preempting a January vote on filling Gallagher’s board seat was met with warm applause by many residents at the sparsely attended meeting and stunned silence by others. Neither Metzger nor Pryslopski was present; but word apparently got around Democratic circles quickly afterwards, as the New Paltz Times began receiving statements of protest that same evening.
“I just learned that at tonight’s Rosendale Town Board meeting, supervisor Jeanne Walsh engineered a complicated scheme in order to reappoint Ken Hassett, who lost his re-election bid, back onto the Town Board,” wrote Rosendale Democratic Committee chair John Schwartz in an e-mail. “The only word to describe this is ‘shenanigans.’ Supervisor Walsh has singlehandedly overturned the election results. This is disrespectful of the voters. There were other, highly qualified, moderate candidates who would have been excellent and respectful stewards of our town government.”
“I found the secrecy of the whole thing upsetting and contrary to the spirit of collaboration I had hoped for,” said Metzger a few days later. “I had made an effort to be involved in this process as an incoming Town Board member, but was shut out. I could not even get information about when the appointment to fill the vacancy would be made, despite a direct request. Going forward, it is my great hope that my colleagues on the Town Board will approach the job of governing in a more collaborative and transparent fashion.”
Pryslopski adopted a similar tone of polite indignation: “Ken Hassett and I have worked together in the past and we will do so once again. However, I was surprised at the way in which he was reappointed to the council. There are more transparent, inclusive and common methods of filling a vacancy on a board that would have been truer to the democratic process and fairer to our voting public. I hope that we will see greater transparency and inclusiveness in January, when the new Town Council will consider applicants for our various town boards.”
However out-of-the-ordinary the appointment process may have been, the die is now cast and Rosendale’s Town Board members old and new will have to find ways to sit at the same table peaceably and productively through 2014.