After strife, hometown heroes will have their day in Westerlo

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Hometown Hero: Betty Filkins holds up a plaque dedicated to Luke McDermott, a veteran, Westerlo native, and paraplegic sled-hockey player who recently played in the Paralympics Winter Games.

WESTERLO — Efforts to put up banners to honor Westerlo veterans have caused tension between a local committee and the town board.

At its June 5 meeting, the Westerlo Town Board discussed what measures would need to be in place to participate in the private Hometown Heroes program in which banners honoring veterans may be bought and displayed on utility poles. Following deliberation over items like insurance as well as angry letters, the town board approved measures that would allow what is now a town committee to install these banners.

“This is one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to face,” said Councilman Joseph Boone who is usually imperturbable, leading meeting discussions in an even-handed manner.

At the June 5 meeting, Councilwoman Amie Burnside presented the requirements to set up the banners, as well as letters of support from local politicians. Burnside co-chairs of the town’s Hometown Heroes Committee.

The project was first brought to the town board in February by Westerlo’s GOP chairwoman, Lisa DeGroff. The board expressed interest, but noted that logistics would need to be figured out.

Around this time, the committee began to meet, said Burnside, a Republican. The other members are DeGroff, who initially co-chaired the committee with Burnside; planning board chairwoman Dorothy Verch; Bonnie Kohl-Laub; and Betty Filkins, the wife of Councilman Richard Filkins, who is the only Republican on the town board besides Burnside.

Burnside told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the hope is to have an opening ceremony at the end of July. If the banners can’t be put up by August, the ceremony will instead occur next spring for a full season. The timing depends on how quickly the utility companies will approve the town’s application to hang the banners, she said.

According to Burnside, most towns involved in the program maintain utility poles owned by National Grid, but in Westerlo the poles are owned either by Central Hudson Gas and Electric or by Verizon Communications. Unlike National Grid, these two companies will not install the banners, and so another service with the proper insurance must be used, including a certificate of insurance to be submitted to Verizon, Burnside told the town board.

Burnside asked that applications and license agreements be submitted to these companies, as well as the certificate of insurance for Verizon. She also asked that a separate account be created for the Hometown Heroes program, in order to pay for banners and receive money from sponsors.

Burnside presented her findings on installing the banners at a May 15 workshop meeting, according to minutes recorded for that meeting. Other board members such as councilmen Boone and Anthony Sherman, as well as code enforcement officer and deputy supervisor Ed Lawson — all Democrats — had questioned handling things like insurance and other factors involving liability.

Boone, while noting at the June meeting that he was in favor of the program, was wary of acting right away as some information was just being presented to the board, he said.

He also wanted to know whether Burnside had presented herself as a town board member or as a private citizen when contacting the utility and insurance companies. Burnside said she was calling as a private citizen.

Deputy Town Clerk Karla Weaver said later in the meeting that some people working at the town hall had been informed by the insurance company that Burnside had indicated she was calling as a councilwoman. Weaver said that Burnside’s name appeared on top of a certificate issued for the utility company.

“Oh no, I did not,” said Burnside.

“Well, we have the email,” said Claire Marshall, who works for the assessor’s office. She had earlier argued from the gallery that Burnside hadn’t followed the proper protocol when she contacted the town’s insurer herself. Burnside later told The Enterprise that she was acting on directions from the town attorney, Aline Galgay, and the supervisor, Richard Rapp, to do so. Galgay could not be reached before press time.

Burnside told The Enterprise on Tuesday that she had been directed by Rapp at a workshop meeting to reach out to the town’s insurance provider on putting up banners. The company sent insurance certificates to herself and town hall, she said.

“I thought they were sending me a copy … ,” she said. “They have since been voided … They were meant to be used as an example.”

Boone later said he was frustrated that Burnside was acting as both a citizen and a councilwoman on this issue. She replied that she has been trying to keep the roles separate. Boone said that he hoped she could see the frustration other board members had with it.

“As I hope you can see mine,” she replied.

Councilman Sherman said the biggest holdup for him was that the town would be putting itself at some risk for the committee. While Sherman complimented Burnside for changing the citizens’ committee to a town committee, Burnside said that the town attorney asked that she form a citizens’ committee even though she had initially wanted to form a town committee.

Burnside told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the idea of starting a committee to look into installing the banners was suggested by the town board in March, and that Galgay had recommended it be a citizens’ committee. She and DeGroff co-chaired the original committee but Burnside is the sole chairwoman of the current committee, she said.

Attack letters

Boone also objected to letters he said were recently submitted to the town board.

“I don’t agree with what everyone said,” Boone stated. “I believe everyone has the right to say what they feel, but the level of attacks was far and above what I thought was necessary for the situation.”

He later added that the letters had stated that town board members had been “derelict in their duties.”

“It’s not fair, and we don’t expect to be treated like this again,” he said.

Boone declined to comment further to The Enterprise on the letters, only clarifying that these letters were sent from someone representing the Hometown Heroes committee.

Burnside told The Enterprise on Tuesday that she sent one email to the supervisor, Rapp, four days after the May workshop meeting and another to town board members. She said that Rapp had been advised by the town attorney, Galgay, not to sign off on the applications. Rapp told The Enterprise on Wednesday that the instruction was to wait until the vendor who would put up the banners had presented a certificate of insurance, a legal requirement, he said.

Rapp told The Enterprise that the issue has since been settled.

Burnside said she wasn’t displeased with Rapp. “It was my displeasure with how it was being handled … The air was cleared before that meeting,” she said.

Burnside said she emailed the other board members, besides Rapp, to also tell them that Galgay had said Rapp should not sign off on the applications; Burnside said her email had not suggested that board members were derelict in their duties. She does not know if any other committee members sent letters.

Burnside, like Boone, also said the lack of communication led to the conflict.

In the gallery at the meeting, Susan Cunningham, who described her as a “sounding board” for the the committee, praised its efforts, and said that posting banners should not be held up on “insignificant points.” Her statement was greeted by applause from those in the gallery. Anita Marone also voiced her support from the gallery for the committee honoring veterans.

“This is the simplest thing that I can think Americans can do to repay them,” she said.

“There seems to be a confusion here,” Boone later said. “Some of you seem to think this board is against when we’re not … We have an obligation to this town to be the fail safe.”

He added that the board could not simply follow “a self-imposed deadline,” and that the process is far more complicated when following rules and regulations.

“If something does go wrong, the town is held responsible,” he said. “That’s not on you; that’s on us.”

Town Clerk Kathleen Spinnato noted that, were the town to be held liable in a lawsuit, then it would affect the taxpayers as well.

Planning board member and Boone’s brother, Gerald Boone, described the letter-writing as “stabbing [Boone] in the back.”

“He served two stints in the Navy; he met his wife in the Navy,” said Gerald Boone of his brother. “They’re sending a boy in the Army at the end of this month.”

“Give him a break,” he concluded, to applause.

Boone later noted that, without open communication, “This is what you get.”

“This is very frustrating to all of us,” said Boone.

“Especially when I don’t get answers from the town attorney,” said Burnside. Boone said he wouldn’t dispute that.


Rapp said that dispersing and receiving funds would be worked out with the accountant.

“I’m going to make damn sure,” said Rapp. “Otherwise it’s my head that’s going to get hung.”

As the board speculated over the likelihood of a lawsuit when the banners are put up, Rapp said, “They’d sue Christ off the cross.”

Councilman Filkins said, as a veteran, he supported Burnside’s efforts but that he has to respect the town board and do what’s right for the town.

The board voted in favor of having Rapp sign documents to apply to become part of the Hometown Heroes program and having him sign a copy of the insurance rider. The board also voted in favor of making the Hometown Heroes Committee a town committee and appointing Burnside as chairwoman. The committee is to research setting up an account along with Rapp.

Burnside abstained from both of the votes.

Sherman asked that the committee make a monthly report at meetings and that the committee be halted if the town board finds an issue.

Burnside said that the utility companies require applications be submitted by an entity associated with the town.

She said that now, as a town entity, the committee will be subject to rules such as the Open Meetings Law, which could alter meeting dates in order to properly notify the public ahead of time. Other than that and opening a town bank account for funds, Burnside said there would be few other changes.

“We would like to do this for many years to come,” she said of honoring veterans. “And not just banners.”

Burnside said she would like to have Westerlo host the traveling Vietnam Wall, for example.

Other business

In other news, the board:

— Passed a resolution for benchmarking energy use in the town facilities and adopted a unified solar permit, steps needed to qualify for a state grant; and

— Was presented with a plaque from town historian Dennis Fancher dedicated to Luke McDermott, a Westerlo native and paraplegic veteran who competed in sled hockey at the Paralympics Winter Games in South Korea this year.


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