Scuffle follows Knox FOIL kerfuffle

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

After the storm: Town officials review employees’ salaries while discussing Knox’s 2018 budget; seated from left, town Clerk Tara Murphy, Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, and Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis; standing is highway superintendent Gary Salisbury.

KNOX — Verbal and physical conflicts occurred at the Oct. 10 Knox Town Board meeting, when both sides of an argument over a Freedom of Information Law request grew increasingly incensed, escalating into a fight between the supervisor’s wife, Anna Lefkaditis, and the co-chair of the town’s Democratic committee, Dee Woessner.

A sheriff’s deputy asked Anna Lefkaditis to leave after she had grabbed Woessner’s cell phone as Woessner recorded the meeting, turning her phone on Lefkaditis. She complied with the deputy’s request and left.

Since Vasilios Lefkaditis was elected two years ago, ousting the longtime supervisor, his supporters have regularly attended meetings, often criticizing the other town board members when they questioned some of his initiatives. At the October meeting, as one of the board members is running against Lefkaditis for supervisor, critics of Lefkaditis were for the first time as vocal as his supporters.

While arguments — somewhat in jest — had arisen over a vote on a design for the town seal, the tension escalated following a discussion of expenses and revenues for the last two annual Pucker Street Fair festivals. Lefkaditis presented these to the board, explaining that, at the last board meeting, some members had asked for accounting information.

Councilman Earl Barcomb stated that he had requested information at the Sept. 19 meeting, and said he found it confusing that figures from Lefkaditis did not match figures from the bookkeeper. Lefkaditis had previously stated the town had made $400 in 2016 and $800 in 2017 at the fairs. A spreadsheet from the town bookkeeper showed the net returns were about $2,700 for 2016 and $900 for 2017.

Barcomb later said he had wanted more information because he was confused by the differences in the amounts. He also said that Lefkaditis had first said the town clerk had deposited the money; the clerk said she had not, and the supervisor later said it had been the town bookkeeper.

Barcomb said he submitted a FOIL request for “deposit slips, bank receipts, cash-in and cash-out receipts.”

He added, “Since the FOIL was made, Supervisor Lefkaditis has tried to avoid giving me this information, by claiming that the FOIL was not filed correctly, and that he wanted to review the town’s FOIL regulations, even though it’s not his decision to make.”

The town clerk, Tara Murphy, is in charge of FOIL requests for Knox.

Barcomb compared it to a FOIL request made in a similar format by town resident Laura Martin Pasquini, who has often in meetings voiced her support for Lefkaditis and been critical of other town board members. Barcomb said her request was granted despite its format, which was similar to his own.

“You know why that is,” said Bruce Countryman, a Knox resident, seated in the gallery.

“What is it?” asked Anna Lefkaditis, the supervisor’s wife, who was also sitting in the gallery. The two began to argue as the supervisor asked them to stop.

“You’re taking something that we did that’s good for this town and destroying it,” she said, of the revived Pucker Street Fair.

The supervisor then said that the FOIL request from Martin Pasquini had gone through the building and zoning department and not through him. Barcomb responded that this was still ultimately determined by the FOIL officer, Murphy.

Town attorney John Dorfman said that it was entirely up to Murphy. He later added that she had contacted him for an opinion on the situation, and said that the supervisor should have provided her with the items he has sole access to like the deposit slips.

Lefkaditis said he had asked Murphy for more time to provide the information, because he had been working on the 2018 town budget, the annual report, and the monthly reports. He added that it still has not been five days since the request was made, which is when a response back is required, and that he has found most requests he has assisted Murphy with took longer than the five days to complete.

“Those were huge requests,” said Murphy. She later said that Cathy Bates, the town bookkeeper, had called her to tell her she would have the request completed within the next day or so.

“And then I pulled her off to help me with the annual report and the budget,” said Lefkaditis. Murphy later said that Bates had notified her earlier on Tuesday — the day of the meeting — that she needed until Friday, and that Murphy should speak to Lefkaditis.

Lefkaditis suggested that the town charge Barcomb for his FOIL request. Dorfman said the town couldn’t charge for digital records, which Barcomb said he would accept.

Dorfman then said it shouldn’t take much time for the supervisor to retrieve the deposit slips, while the audience grew more heated.

“He’s been working his ass off, and if you can’t wait more than five days to get this bulls--t — ” said Anna Wolfe in the gallery; she is a long-time Lefkaditis supporter.

“He has no idea how many hours I put into this,” Lefkaditis said, of Dorfman.

“If it had been done right in the first place, Vas, there wouldn’t be any questions,” said someone in the gallery.

Wolfe added that a FOIL request doesn’t need to be answered in five days; only a response is required. Meanwhile, Anna Lefkaditis commented that she thought Dee Woessner, who had been recording Wolfe on her smart phone, was being rude. It appeared then that Woessner started filming Anna Lefkaditis, and a scuffle between the two ensued.

“She can’t record me!” said Anna Lefkaditis.

 

Both Vasilios Lefkaditis and Albany County Sheriff’s Investigator Amy Kowalski, who attends the meetings as a community liaison, approached the two women.

“That’s assault!” shouted someone in the audience, though it is unclear who the accusation was directed at.

“Everybody keep their hands to themselves,” said Lefkaditis.

“She never touched anyone,” said someone in the audience, as Anna Lefkaditis left the room.

Woessner told The Enterprise that Anna Lefkaditis tried to take her phone away. A video from Woessner shows Anna Lefkaditis grabbing that phone from Woessner and stopping the recording.

Woessner said that, after Anna Lefkaditis grabbed her phone, the supervisor’s wife tried to hand it to a friend, unintentionally placing it in the hands of Woessner’s husband’s, Rich Weltzin, before trying to take it back after realizing who it was, but Weltzin managed to retrieve it. A second recording was unintentionally made as the scuffle continued.

 

 

Woessner noted that, while people can see cameras as an act of aggression, she was recording comments because she had wanted to quote people accurately since she had hoped to write a letter to the Enterprise editor.

Kowalski told The Enterprise on Friday that she saw two women in a verbal argument that appeared to be escalating, and that one woman was asked to leave, and she then did.

“There was no assault committed,” said Kowalski, who clarified that assault would constitute causing physical harm to another person.

Kowalski said that Sheriff’s Deputy Hotaling — wearing a uniform, while Kowalski was in plainclothes —  had arrived shortly after the incident occurred, and stayed until shortly before the meeting ended.

“It was just a heated meeting, just to assure safety, and assure no one was injured,” Kowalski explained.

She said, in her time as a community liaison attending meetings, she has not witnessed a similar incident at a meeting. She added that it is understandable that people are passionate about their community, but that such actions are unacceptable.

Anna Lefkaditis did not return a call seeking comment before press time.

Woessner and the supervisor’s wife have verbally sparred at past meetings. Woessner is a co-chair of the town’s Democratic Committee, which endorsed Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, a Democrat running for town supervisor, over Lefkaditis. An enrolled Democrat, Lefkaditis ran on the Conservative line and won the race for supervisor two years ago, and is running for re-election on the Republican line this November.

Woessner predicted that Pokorny would win the Democratic endorsement shortly after the councilwoman announced her candidacy. She had also filed a suit last year for the Democratic Party that struck Ken Saddlemire, a Democrat, from the Republican ballot he was running on for town council, leading him to launch a write-in campaign. This year, Saddlemire is running again, this time alongside Lefkaditis on the Republican ballot.

Wolfe has spoken out at meetings in the past, and is the wife of planning board member Tom Wolfe, who had cast the planning board’s sole vote in favor of a proposed business district that Lefkaditis had been pushing as a way to bring more businesses to Knox. Lefkaditis has also, at both January reorganizational meetings, put forward Tom Wolfe’s name to chair the planning board; the council members have both times rejected this, keeping longtime chairman, Robert Price, in place.

Similarly, Lefkaditis has tried to replace Dorfman as the town attorney, but the board members have not backed him on this, either.

Following the scuffle, Patrick Walter said from the gallery that Lefkaditis was putting “on a g---amn circus,” to applause from others in the gallery, while another resident, Donald Hempstead, started arguing with him.

“If we keep this up, I’m going to empty the room … ,” said Lefkaditis. “I’m going to ask the sheriff’s deputy to help to do it.”

“You caused it,” said another resident in the gallery.

Kowalski said that, if the town hall was in need of being closed, she and Hotaling would assist in emptying it, but that they first “try to be proactive to keep the peace.”

Barcomb made a motion to authorize Murphy to have access to all bank accounts and bank records, so that there would be access if Lefkaditis were too busy. Lefkaditis seconded the motion, and it was approved by the town board.

Lefkaditis and Dorfman then began to argue, with Lefkaditis saying he had done nothing illegal because it had not been five days since the request had been made, and Dorfman saying that he had not filled his fiduciary duty by promptly gathering the information.

“By the way, did we resolve this? Can I have a few more days?” asked Lefkaditis. Barcomb and Murphy agreed, but Murphy emphasized that she had not granted extra time as FOIL officer because until that Tuesday she had thought Bates had not needed more time. Lefkaditis said the communication break could have been his fault.

New York State law affirms that, within five days of submission, a FOIL request must be either granted, denied, or acknowledged with a statement of the approximate date when the request will be granted or denied. If 20 days pass from the date of that response and a response still cannot be given, it must be stated in writing why this is the case and a reasonable date given of when the request can be granted, either whole or in part.

The law also states that an agency may only charge for costs including the hourly salary of the lowest paid employee able to prepare copies, the cost of media provided, and the cost of an outside service used to produce records if the agency cannot. It cannot charge for search time or administrative costs, and the person making the request must be informed of the cost.

New York State law also states that any public meetings are open to “being photographed, broadcast, webcast, or otherwise recorded and/or transmitted by audio or video means. As used herein the term “broadcast” shall also include the transmission of signals by cable.” The Enterprise recorded the October meeting and broadcasted it on the social media sites Twitter and Periscope. It can be found at https://goo.gl/mqBaoA .

 

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