There was a rustling among the SRO crowd at the West Hurley Fire Company’s headquarters when recently-elected chairman Justus Rice announced that the February 11 Board of Fire Commissioners meeting was being canceled until Wednesday, February 13 because of a lack of quorum.
The crowd had been drawn by last Friday’s news that former West Hurley Fire Chief David G. Gutierrez and his son David N. Gutierrez had been charged with felony assault, and that the former chief along with former fire company chairman Michael “Bucky” Van Valkenburgh had been arrested on felony and misdemeanor charges for using fire company equipment unlawfully, to the tune of over $55,000. They’ve all been released on their own recognizance. Guiterrez and his son are on leave of absences from the Fire District.
Questions about ongoing investigations from the state comptroller’s office and county district attorney’s office had been raised at commissioners’ meetings ever since the comptroller’s office came and removed files from the commissioners and chief’s offices last summer. None had been answered, and the investigations only tersely acknowledged, before the February 8 arrests.
State police at Ulster have said that Gutierrez, 52, along with his son David N. Gutierrez, 24, were arrested and charged with second-degree assault. The second charge against Gutierrez, who is currently captain of the West Hurley Fire District, and VanValkenburgh, 44, alleged that the former chief abused his authority by using the fire district water tanker, another fire district vehicle, gasoline and the company EZ-Pass while traveling statewide for his wife’s business, Woodstock Landscaping and Excavating. This was all allegedly done with the knowledge of the commissioners chairman, Van Valkenburgh, who also worked for Woodstock Landscaping and Excavating and, as a commissioner, was barred from receiving any payment from the district.
The charges allege that Gutierrez’s actions, which included use of the tanker for filling pools, ponds, and other uses, added up to over $30,000 in costs, while Van Valkenburgh additionally laundered payments of $20,755 through a relative who had a cleaning contract with the fire district.
“Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. VanValkenburgh allegedly violated their duty and used resources meant to protect their community to fund their personal business and lifestyle,” state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a statement. “Thanks to the joint work of my office with District Attorney Carnright, they will now be will be held accountable.”
Carnright gave a nod to the comptroller. “I would like to acknowledge the professionalism of Comptroller DiNapoli’s team. It is largely through their efforts that we are able to bring this matter into the light and proceed with a prosecution,” District Attorney Holley Carnright added.
Hurley Supervisor John Perry defended the integrity of the district as a whole. “First, I want to thank all the constituents in the West Hurley Fire District who spoke up and brought this matter to my attention. I would like to also thank the State Comptroller and Ulster County DA Carnright’s office for their time and due diligence dealing with this matter. Lastly, I want to be clear that the West Hurley Fire District should not and will not be tarnished by these few individuals. The men and women who volunteer as our first responders are some of the best around. We need to look at this as an opportunity to form a renewed bond with the residents and the Fire District and this will only better West Hurley as a whole.”
No quorum February 11
In the fire hall Monday evening, attendees acknowledged that Van Valkenburgh, the board’s deputy chairman since a reorganization meeting last month, had been at the fire hall until 15 minutes before the monthly meeting’s 6:30 p.m. start time. They and Chairman Rice noted that Van Valkenburgh had left because “the stress was too much” according to Rice.
Others anecdotally noted that the Guiterrez’s arrests allegedly came following an incident at the Woodstock Stewarts store at the corner of Route 28 and Zena Road, where an incident was reported at 10:34 a.m. on Thursday, January 17 after the father and son allegedly “beat the living daylights out of a man” who had brought up the comptrollers’ investigation. The two men had been in court before their arrests. Sources at the meeting said that the arrests were made after police reviewed surveillance camera footage from Stewarts.
Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Rice said that he didn’t want to push Van Valkenburgh to stay for the meeting because, “I didn’t want anything to happen to him.” When asked about why it took so long for the commissioners to do anything about their former chairman, or about their former chief and his son, he said that he has been acting under the advice of the company’s counsel, attorney David Garwood of the Syracuse-based Pinsky Law Group, which specializes in volunteer fire law and EMS.
Rice answered similar questions regarding the possibility of other commissioners participating in a meeting by phone by noting that such instances would have to be advertised ahead-of-time, and involve a phone connection that showed the person’s face live, as well. He said of the other two missing commissioners, Frank Faluotico Jr. and Roger Blatter, that the former had been upstate participating in intensive trainings over recent months, and that the latter went to Florida each winter.
The company’s new chief, Frank Fauble, headed to a private office immediately following the announcement that Monday’s meeting was canceled. When he emerged after discussions with newly-elected commissioner Cheri Scully a half hour later, he was surrounded by a number of vocal West Hurley residents who had organized themselves into an ad hoc group with Facebook page. Why, they asked, had Van Valkenburgh not been asked to step down, or the Guiterrezes dismissed from the company?
Fauble said that he was advised to ask the Gutierrezes to send letters requesting leaves of absence, with wording provided by Dave Garwood, the company’s attorney. He said he had delivered the letters for the men to sign before they had been charged, based on what they had heard about the Stewarts’ altercation, and what the company’s lawyers had been told.
“We hadn’t known of the fire district charges from the Comptrollers office when we sent the letters,” Fauble added.
He added that the letters had been returned to him by the Gutierrezes, and passed on to the board of commissioners before the meeting.
“We’ve sent a letter back to them saying we’re in receipt of their requests for leaves of absence,” Fauble added, “and that those leaves will be in effect until their legal matters are over.
Further questions arose about the West Hurley Fire District’s current push to get all members to sign on to a new set of rules and regulations provided by Pinsky Law Group in recent months, with a requested signing date for all by March 15. Fauble said that approximately 30 people had signed to date but “the document is 2116 pages long and complicated.”
The new legal documents were requested last spring after the commissioners were advised that their old set of by-laws, augmented and added to over the years, were obsolete and a liability. The board approved the new document at a meeting in January.
Chief Fauble and Chairman Rice spoke about how fire company members used to borrow lawnmowers and other equipment, never knowing such things were illegal. They talked about other companies throughout the state that have run into problems.
Others at the meeting, meanwhile, asked how deep the current investigations might end up running. Hadn’t the Guiterrez assault gone to a local court and been dismissed? Why hadn’t the commissioners looked into things after the seizing of materials in July?
Fauble and Rice said it was time everyone focused on some of the good elements at the West Hurley Fire District. They’d answered 60 calls successfully since January 1. There was a Big Truck Day set for the community on April 27.
“I’m left with one big worry,” countered taxpayer and company critic Bob Bloomer. “We have young people joining the company and we’ve had a raging bull running amok. Who’s to say nothing else happens?”
“It’s not going to happen,” answered Fauble as the two burley men crossed arms and faced each other. “Take my word on it, Bob.”