The August 10th meeting at the ECFD was of a different nature than the last one, thanks largely in part to the presence of non-company member fire commissioner, Art Weiland. Effectively functioning as the public watch dog, he opened up the “new business” portion of the meeting with three items he had reviewed with a lawyer: why he had been kept from fully accessing the firehouse, whether it was permissible to record meetings, and whether the public comment portion should be included in the official minutes.
The delay in his access to the building, said Weiland, came from concern about the firehouse’s insurance not covering non-company members. He plans to take basic training so that he can learn about firehouse safety issues and have appropriate access to the entire building.
Last month commissioner Stephanie Bonk directed the sheriff, who now attends these meeting due to what the board cites as a “hostile work environment,” to assess whether a citizen in attendance was recording. At this meeting, nearly a quarter of the eighteen people in in the room had recorders out in full view. Weiland made it clear that recording is absolutely allowed at meetings, as long as they are made unobtrusively.
As far as official minutes go, Weiland discovered that it is the board that decides how extensive they should be. The main purpose of minutes is to record how the board votes on various topics. While most town meetings have a public questioning session, it does not have to be recorded. At the opening of this meeting’s public comment period, Bonk reiterated that this discussion “does not get recorded in our minutes, does not have to be recorded in our minutes.” The result is that taxpayers who do not attend the meeting in person do not have access to the public dialogue.
Weiland brought up the purchase price for land that was acquired by ECFD in 2007 for $217,000. At that time it held a house in poor condition and a barn, both of which have been taken down. Now, says Weiland, the current assessment for the property on the parcel access map is $100,000. “The value to us is the land,” said board chairman, Steve Forschler. Because the public has to approve a bond for the cost of a new firehouse, which it said “no” to in a recent vote, the ECFD seems to have put the cart before the horse. They now have land for the firehouse, now assessed at fifty percent of its cost, but no referendum for the firehouse itself. Bonk stated that she will look into whether the auditors are valuing the land at the current assessed value or the purchase price.
The audit, however, is stalled. Forschler stated that the firm performing the audit does not return the board’s calls. For this reason the board voted to send an official letter stating that they are withholding payment until communication is re-established. The board worked successfully with the same firm last year.
In the spring, the ECFD commissioned a local architectural firm to design plans for a new firehouse. When Idan Simms, a member of the public, asked to be provided with a copy of the plans that were paid for by tax payers, Forschler stated, “There are no plans.” “Then what did we pay for?” countered Simms. This question went unanswered when Ms. Bonk interrupted to correct Sims that town board members are called councilmen, not supervisors, as he had referred to them earlier when thanking them for attending the meeting, and to say that they have nothing to do with the ECFD meeting. “We are not governed by them, we are independent. We are our own board governed under New York State. So the town councilman can come and monitor as a taxpayer…but as far as the town having any control over our budget, they do not.”
Barney Calame, a resident from Salt Point, returned to the question at hand. In reference to the work done by the architectural firm, he asked, “What did you learn?” Forschler replied that the ECFD learned they can’t afford to go ahead with the preliminary plans and schematics that were drawn up. He said that nothing has been done since that time.
There are still open questions for the board of fire commissioners to deal with and present responsibly to the public. The presence of commissioner Weiland as a representative of the community seems at least to have made the presence of the sheriff standing at the back of the meeting hall unnecessary.