Westerlo anniversaries, reports, and filicide in 2013

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Alglow with summer fun, the celebration of the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company’s 75th anniversary ended with a brilliant fireworks display in July, silhouetting a couple. 

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Packed and sated: A patron at the Hiawatha Grange Hall in South Westerlo signals for service when the meals site was reopened with full tables in June. Since then, participation waned and the site was closed by the Albany County Department of Health. The site was managed by the Helderbeg Senior Services Inc., which had reshuffled its board members just after it closed temporarily at the end of 2012. Supervisor Kevin Crosier of Berne, a Helderberg Senior Services board member, said he hopes to have a meals program established a location more central to the Hilltowns.

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Long known to need repairs, the Westerlo town garage, connected to judges’ chambers and state police quarters on County Route 401, came under review in the final months of 2013. Its roof has major leaks and its surface sheeting was peeled away on a windy day in November.

WESTERLO — The case of filicide here two summers ago was closed with the defendant’s lack of memory.

The town remembered and honored its community organizations with two large anniversary celebrations, the 75th for the volunteer fire company and the 220th for the Westerlo Reformed Church.

Out of the town’s work meetings, the employee handbook has been revised, and the water system has gained a revived administration with the direction of a newcomer to the board, Councilman William Bichteman.

A handful of residents drove discussions about openness and hydraulic fracturing during town board meetings.

Murderer sentenced to 20 years

The murder of Gabriel Philby-Zetzsche above the P&L Deli in Westerlo confused people who knew him and his mother, Tracey Zetzsche, because they had been so close. The two had been in Westerlo for less than a year, originally from Long Island, and were the only people known to be in their apartment when Philby-Zetzsche was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in July 2012.

Zetzsche was found huddled on the porch outside her apartment by her sister-in-law when Philby-Zetzsche’s body was discovered. The coroner said he had been dead for days as Zetzsche was living in the apartment.

She asked for a mop and water, pointed fans out the window, and refused to let people into the apartment. Bloodied knives were found in a nearby Dumpster.

Zetzsche said she had no recollection of what happened and mourned her son, who had cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and suffered from seizures.

“To me he was perfect,” Zetzsche said in court on Nov. 1, the day she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. “He was a gift from God, but Gab was never really comfortable with his own skin. He longed to be normal. He longed to be accepted.”

Judge Stephen Herrick of Albany County Court accepted from Zetzsche an Alford plea, similar to guilty but not a direct admission of wrongdoing. The defense and prosecution had Zetzsche evaluated and both concluded she had legitimate amnesia, unable to recall the period of time during which the murder took place.

The Alford plea was necessary, Zetzsche’s attorney James Milstein explained, because of the weight of evidence that would be presented against her in court. Milstein, the Albany County public defender, said no Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) had been done on Zetzsche’s brain.

“The idea that she deserves to be in prison, as opposed to a psychiatric facility, where many of her issues could be more appropriately treated, are questioned by many,” wrote Milstein in a sentencing memo.  “Nevertheless, Tracey has made this decision to move forward with the plea bargain as her attempt to obtain closure.  She presents a case where justice is elusive and impossible to fashion. The Court should exercise appropriate compassion for a broken woman who will spend the rest of her days knowing that her body caused the death of her beloved son, while her mind was elsewhere.”

Two to one

When Gregory Zeh and Edward Rash, both Democrats, announced their resignations at the November town board meeting in 2012, the remaining three board members had the task of appointing two new people.

Theodore Lounsbury and Bichteman were newcomers to elective office in the November 2013 elections in which they ran unopposed, but they had each nearly a year of experience on the board.

Supervisor Richard Rapp and Councilman Alfred Field voted to appoint Bichteman and Lounsbury at the beginning of the year. Councilman Anthony Sherman would not say why he voted against their appointments.

The following month, when the appointments were made separately, Sherman voted for Bichteman, then, when Bichteman had a vote, Sherman opposed the appointment of Lounsbury.

“It became imperative to me after my first board meeting, that I research issues,” Bichteman said just before the November election.

Both Bichteman and Lounsbury grew up in Dormansville. Bichteman, 66, is retired from a career in heavy construction and his own contracting company, Trinity Construction Inc. Lounsbury, 35, is a project manager for FPI Mechanical in Cohoes, which, he said, builds and maintains chemical plants.

The two men start their first full, four-year terms this month.

Openness

The town board came under scrutiny by residents who questioned its unannounced meetings with town attorney Aline Galgay before regular meetings.

Some residents asked why Galgay wasn’t present at public meetings. Board members responded that Galgay comes to meetings only when requested, so as to avoid the contention that existed in past meetings she attended.

The closed sessions were only legal under the Open Meetings Law if attorney-client confidentiality could have been invoked.

“Only to the extent that the board is seeking legal advice and the attorney is offering legal advice would a private meeting separate from the Open Meetings Law be validly held,” Robert Freeman, director of the Committee on Open Government, told The Enterprise. He continued, “If they’re not offering legal advice, there’s not privileged communication.”

The board voted in April to begin meeting three times each month — two additional work meetings would be scheduled for the Tuesdays following each regular meeting. The work meetings are held in public, but Bichteman has said the public is not allowed to comment and no resolutions would be voted on.

“It’s basically the opportunity to get together to talk about various issues of the town without someone deciding that they should redirect our agenda,” said Bichteman.

Hydraulic fracturing

A report studying the process of extracting natural gas from underground shale formations, known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, was the anticipated result of a committee formed in 2012.

During the moratorium on gas-drilling in Westerlo, the board’s charge to the committee is to report to the board with a “recommendation regarding how to regulate land use with respect to gas drilling and, in particular, hydrofracking.”

Dianne Sefcik is a Westerlo resident who has been a vocal critic of the report and the committee throughout 2013. She had volunteered to be on the committee and criticized the lack of publication of its meeting times in 2012.

Hydraulic fracturing uses sand, chemicals, and large volumes of water under high pressures to break apart shale formations, releasing natural gas thousands of feet underground. Westerlo is located on part of the Marcellus shale formation, which is known to harbor the gas deposits.

Over the past year, the state agency in charge of regulating gas drilling, the Department of Environmental Conservation, has awaited a review of hydrofracking by the Department of Health.

In the meantime, an Appellate Division court ruled that town bans on activities like gas drilling in their zoning ordinances are not superceded by state law. The New York State Court of Appeals, the top court in a three-tiered system, has decided to hear the case as early as this spring.

Other towns nearby have not yet passed formal bans. All are considering how they address hydrofracking. Berne and Rensselaerville have finished reports that include recommendations for action to essentially prohibit high-volume gas drilling.

In Westerlo, the report was withheld from public inspection by town board members citing it as a draft, and the town clerk said she had conflicting advice on how to handle Freedom of Information Law requests for the document.

The Westerlo report was submitted to the town board in May and was eventually released to the public, though the board voted, 3 to 2, at its July meeting to have the report modified.

“It’s hard to tell what is a resource material and what is a summation of the facts,” said Bichteman at the time. The report excerpts much of its contents from a limited number of sources and makes no recommendation.

Rapp and Sherman voted with Bichteman to revise and not accept the report. Lounsbury and Field, who chaired the committee charged with creating the document, opposed the motion.

Months passed as Bichteman tried to reshape the committee, which is now revising the report.

Meals site closed

A five-day meals site in South Westerlo closed for good amid weak attendance at the Hiawatha Grange Hall. The closure in August came just a few months after a grand re-opening in June.

“We just closed down because we weren’t getting the amount of people and the funding,” said Teresa Boles, site manager for the not-for-profit Helderberg Senior Services that managed the site.

The Albany County Department for Aging reimbursed Helderberg Senior Services on a per-meal basis. The site needed to serve 30 meals in order to break even, said Kevin Crosier, Helderberg Senior Services’ board member.

“We will do something eventually,” said Crosier, supervisor of the town of Berne.

The grange hall served free, warm meals to low-income elderly people. It was one of about 20 congregate meals sites throughout Albany County.

Specific nutritional guidelines and age criteria are in place for congregate meal sites that receive reimbursements from the county based on the number of meals served. But the meals also benefit people whose spouses have died or who have family far away and want the conversation and card games.

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