Politics heat up involving Westerlo firehouse, ad for veterans’ services

WESTERLO — Although local elections are still months away, questions over how a political party should be campaigning have already come up in Westerlo.

Barbara Russell, a self-described “Democrat, always voting for the most qualified candidate,” criticizes the Westerlo Republican Party in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week for what she termed unethical behavior that included using the town seal in GOP campaign materials, sharing information about Republican candidates at the local firehouse, and using the launch of a new service for veterans in the town as a political stunt.

With the long-time Westerlo supervisor, Richard Rapp, recently resigning, both the Democrats and Republicans are pursuing the supervisor’s post as well as council seats on a board long dominated by Democrats, which currently has two Republicans and three Democrats. Party enrollment in the town favors Democrats, 2 to 1.

On May 14, the Albany County Veterans Bureau began having representatives available Tuesday mornings at the Westerlo Reformed Church to offer services to veterans. Russell notes in her letter that Republicans prominently published their names and contact information in flyers advertising for the new services (see illustration).

A flyer sent to The Enterprise regarding the program shows the names and contact information of town board members Amie Burnside and Richard Filkins, planning board chairwoman Dorothy Verch, Westerlo Republican Party Chairwoman Lisa DeGroff, and residents Matthew Kryzak and Wendy Shelburne. Burnside, Kryzak, Shelburne, and Verch are all running for town office.

DeGroff responded that the group that lobbied for county veterans’ services in Westerlo includes herself and another person who is not running for office who “just so happen to be Republicans,” while also including someone not registered in a party and an Independence Party member. DeGroff said that their names and phone numbers are on the flyer for veterans’ services in order to answer questions after regular work hours and also to possibly be someone familiar to talk to about services.

Regarding the town seal, DeGroff told The Enterprise that she had been informed Acting Supervisor William Bichteman, a Democrat running for supervisor, had said the Westerlo GOP should not be using the town seal in its flyers, and so she instructed members to cover up the image of the seal.

According to federal law, trademark registration is forbidden for “the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation thereof.” This means use of the town seal is not illegal.

“We’re proud of the town, that’s all I can say,” DeGroff said of the Republicans’ use of the town seal.

“I don’t know if there is any regulation concerning the use of the seal of the town … ,” Bichteman told The Enterprise but he added, “I think it should be used for official town business.”

He said that the town had been asked to post a notice about the new veterans’ services on the town website. The flyer that was submitted to be published online used the town seal and listed the names and contact information of the GOP candidates and “significant Republicans in the town,” he said. The contact information for Ken Secor of the Albany County Veterans Bureau was much smaller than the other names, he said.

“The fact that they used the town seal gave the flyer a political tone,” said Bichteman. He added that the town supports the program and veterans but didn’t want to be “mixing politics with the support of a worthwhile organization.”

Kelley Keefe, president of the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company, told The Enterprise that the fire department’s board decided a statement should be made at the May Westerlo Town Board meeting after two incidents occurred at the March and April firehouse breakfasts.

In March, said Keefe, a sign was posted at the firehouse with a notice about the upcoming GOP caucus. At the April breakfast, flyers had been put out on the tables advertising the upcoming “Meet the Candidates” event at the Westerlo library. The flyers named only Republican candidates, she said.

“Our bylaws state we will not condone any political activities at our functions,” she said.

DeGroff said the town’s Republican party is required to post information about the caucus in at least 10 public places and that the firehouse is a public place where the party can legally post.

“This is not the first year that a campaign posted there,” she said.

She said that the flyer that was at the breakfast in April had been personally delivered by her to someone else attending the breakfast and that they left it at the firehouse. She said only one flyer was left at the firehouse.

Rachel Bledi, the Republican Commissioner at the Albany County Board of Elections, told The Enterprise that notice of a caucus is required to be either posted at 10 different public places 10 days prior to the caucus or in the local newspaper one week in advance.

“I would say a public place is a location that the public would use or access,” she said, adding that some towns may even post a notice at a restaurant or a gas station. She said that firehouses are a public place commonly used to advertise for town caucuses.

The Westerlo Democratic Party posted a notice of its April 24 caucus in The Altamont Enterprise. According to Democratic Party Chairman Edwin Stevens, Bichteman was chosen for town supervisor, Kathy Spinnatto for town clerk, Robert Carl for town justice, and Anthony Sherman and Jennifer Bungay were chosen for town board; all candidates are Democrats.

Bungay, currently the secretary for the town’s zoning board of appeals, is the only nominee not an incumbent. Stevens said she had a great financial background with previous experience at a bank. Jody Ostrander, a Democrat, is backed by both the Democratic and Republican parties.


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