The Memorial Day parade and picnic are back on thanks to a tentative agreement with the American Legion, but bad blood between the veterans organization and Councilman Jay Wenk still boiled to the surface at the town board’s April 14 meeting.
The board voted to allow Town Supervisor Jeremy Wilber to enter into a new agreement with the Legion for financial assistance with Memorial Day ceremonies. Wenk abstained. Councilman Ken Panza voted no, saying the town should provide even more support for Memorial Day than the current reimbursement for flags and grave markers.
Wenk responded to comments made by Legion trustee Terry Breitenstein at a March meeting that he considered personal attacks.
“At that time I immediately said that I was willing to meet with anybody, anywhere, anytime to discuss these issues, and as of this moment, four full weeks later, nothing but silence from a group of loud-mouths,” Wenk said.
On March 17, Breitenstein announced the Legion, in response to new demands to account for how it spent the town’s yearly $2,000 contribution, would no longer organize the Memorial Day parade or picnic.
He also made comments about Wenk’s failure to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the Town Board business meetings and alluded to Wenk’s distrust of the Legion.
“Snide comments were made about me and my patriotism in relation to the flag. Snide at the best,” Wenk said.
Holding up a combat medal he earned during World War II, Wenk said, “This is a Combat Infantry Badge and it says exactly what it is. Combat infantry. He doesn’t have one,” Wenk said, referring to Breitenstein.
Supervisor Jeremy Wilber, trying to break up the tension, urged Wenk not to get personal.
“I’m making my comments as I see fit because I was personally attacked,” Wenk replied.
One Legion member asked Wenk if he was speaking for the board or for himself.
Councilman Bill McKenna and Councilwoman Cathy Magarelli said Wenk was speaking for himself.
“And I’ll have a rebuttal,” Breitenstein retorted.
A heated back-and-forth between Wenk and Breitenstein ensued as Wenk was trying to finish his comments, with some on the board and in the audience wondering if Wenk should be allowed to use the board’s time in this manner.
“I don’t think you should be able to use a town board seat as a pulpit,” Breitenstein said.
“I think you should be quiet until you’re recognized,” Wenk replied.
“I don’t pay attention to anything you say, Jay,” fired back Breitenstein.
“Keep quiet until you’re recognized,” Wenk said.
When Wilber said everyone will have the chance to respond, even Wenk said there should be an end.
“If they are going to respond, then I’m going to respond. How far do you want this to go?” he asked.
Wenk described a history of the Legion trying to trample the free-speech rights of the Catskill Alliance for Peace and the Veterans for Peace to participate in the parade and ceremony.
“That flag was carried in my heart when I was 18 years old along with my brothers on the line,” Wenk said. “That gives me one heck of a lot of authority to speak at a commemoration on Memorial Day.”
Wenk used to speak at the ceremony, but was eventually asked to stop after complaints. It had nothing to do with free speech, countered Breitenstein. Members of the Legion, VFW and people in crowds were upset, he said. “We told him you have to stop the political speech,” Breitenstein said. “Finally we said no, you can’t do it.”
While Wilber has said the town requirement to sign expense vouchers is a mandate from the state Comptrollers’ Office, Breitenstein thinks it’s more sinister. He finds it an interesting coincidence the new requirement came shortly after Wenk questioned the Legion’s expenses.
But Wenk defended his actions. “We found out that not all that money went to the flags and memorial markers. As a matter of fact it was less than half,” Wenk said. “One wonders where the rest of that money went to. Less than half.”
Last year, the Town Board passed a resolution to spend the remaining money after flags and markers were purchased on donations in the Legion’s name to the Veterans Administration hospital in Albany and on Samaritan Village, a drug treatment center in Ellenville.
Wenk detailed several years worth of contracts with the Legion in which the town required vouchers in exchange for the $2000 payment, trying to refute Breitenstein’s assertion that the Legion was never required to show receipts.
McKenna pointed out vouchers are not the same thing as receipts. As an example, the Fire Department does not produce a detailed bill for the fireworks itemizing every Roman candle that is set off, but is rather asked to sign a simple voucher with the total amount.
Breitenstein was itching to have more say in the matter, but Wilber attempted to put things in perspective.
“First of all, I’m happy that there are so few other issues of the town at such a moment that we have time to dwell on this,” he said, taking blame for the deteriorating relationship with the Legion.
Wilber attributes it to being new to the job back in 2000 when the comptroller requirements first were an issue and not drafting contracts with the proper language.
The new deal yet to be sealed expands the definition of support to include “bands for the parade, insurance coverage and the picnic.” Instead of specific requirements for accounting, the new, broader agreement simply states “The legion shall consult with the supervisor of the town.”