Westerlo appoints new assessor in emergency meeting

Enterprise file photo — Noah Zweifel
Acting Supervisor William Bichteman listens during a town board meeting on Nov. 19, where the council voted to appoint a new sole assessor.

WESTERLO — At an emergency board meeting held on Nov. 26, the Westerlo Town Board appointed Garth Slocum as the town’s sole assessor after its original appointee, Justin Maxwell, turned down the position. 

All four council members voted in favor of appointing Slocum; the acting supervisor, William Bichteman, doesn’t have a vote.

“Unfortunately I will not be taking the Westerlo position after discussing the terms with the town supervisor, and I decided to take an assessor job in a different town that fits my schedule better,” Maxwell told The Enterprise in an email. He also works as the assessor for Knox.

The Westerlo board initially voted to appoint Maxwell at its regular meeting on Nov. 19, but, according to Bichteman, Maxwell was not able to make the office hours two days a week, plus an evening session, along with attendance at the monthly town board meeting. 

“He preferred to work one day and no evening session,” Bichteman told The Enterprise.

But Bichteman said that the conditions, which were set by the town board after he proposed the office hours in September, could not be changed.

“Basically, [Maxwell] gave me the ultimatum that he had another appointment with another town for virtually the same amount of money … and it’s only one day a week,” explained Bichteman. He later said, “I told him, ‘It’s your choice,’ and he sent me an email back saying he was declining the position.”

“The Westerlo position just didn’t fit my schedule, so I declined,” Maxwell wrote in response to follow-up questions from The Enterprise. “The hours they have are fine, [they] just did not fit for me. I am working in multiple towns right now, so I could only take a job that would fit.”

Although Slocum is the town’s second choice, he is described by Bichteman as being the most experienced of the three people who applied for the job. 

“Garth had years and years of experience. He had probably the most experience of all,” Bichteman said, later adding that Slocum has worked in “a lot more towns and a lot bigger towns than anyone else.”

Slocum, who could not be reached for comment, is currently listed as the assessor for Pleasant Valley, New York, on the town’s website, and records show he was formerly assessor for Hudson, New York.

When asked why Maxwell was chosen over Slocum despite Slocum’s superior experience, Bichteman, cautious not to speak for the whole board, said that Maxwell was a “dynamic individual” who “interviewed really well,” in addition to having a strong grasp of the responsibilities of the position. 

 

Background

Westerlo’s search for an assessor began in September of this year, when the board voted to advertise the position to new candidates, a move that effectively ousted long-time assessor Peter Hotaling. Hotaling was one of three applicants for the newly advertised post, which also eliminates the health insurance he had had for 19 years.

Hotaling was not satisfying the town’s newly-set 80-percent attendance requirement, which he said was because of hospitalizations for surgeries and a subsequent infection that nearly took his life. He said, however, that he had kept up with his work, using a computer while in the hospital and rehabilitation center.

The September vote was unanimous among the four elected council members — two Republicans and two Democrats — and Hotaling himself told The Enterprise that he did not consider the vote political, but it nonetheless seemed to take a political charge in the coming weeks.

Dorothy Verch, a Republican who was running to replace Bichteman as part of a larger Republican mobilization to loosen Democrats’ decades-long political grip, publicly expressed sympathy for Hotaling, as did Bonnie Kohl-Laub, former chairwoman of Westerlo’s Republican Committee.

Meanwhile, David Walker, deputy personnel officer for the Albany County Department of Civil Service, told The Enterprise that Hotaling had legal protection and was not eligible to be removed “except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing upon states charges pursuant to Section 75 of Civil Service Law.”

The town, however, with guidance from its attorney, Javid Afzali, failed to produce charges and hold hearings. 

Hotaling was recently appointed as Rensselaerville’s first sole assessor; Rensselaerville had previously had three elected assessors. Hotaling told The Enterprise last week that he has requested an opinion from the county Civil Service Department, which, if it indicates malpractice on behalf of the town, will open the door for legal proceedings.

Hotaling, however, said that he is “just curious” and does not have plans to pursue legal action against the town.

 

Office hours

While Westerlo advertised the post as having office hours Monday and Wednesday mornings from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. and Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m., other Hilltown assessors have comparatively light office schedules.

In Berne, assessor office hours are Wednesday from 5:30 until 7 p.m. — with only one of Berne’s three elected assessors required to attend at a time. Renssealerville has a similar setup, with three assessors sharing one two-hour session, one day a week. 

Betty Filkins, wife of Westerlo board member Richard Filkins, wrote in a comment on the Enterprise website that the town’s office-hour requirements are unnecessary when the job of an assessor can largely be done from a computer. 

Jeff Pine, who is currently serving as one of Rensselaerville’s elected assessors before Hotaling takes over in January, paralleled Filkins’s claim that the assessor position does not require an in-person presence and can be done mostly on a computer. 

Russell Pokorny, who was Knox’s assessor before Maxwell, also affirmed that the job can be done remotely, if desired.

“I never had set office hours,” Pokorny told The Enterprise. “But I always met anyone who wanted to meet with me.”

Pokorny went so far as to visit people’s homes to address questions and concerns, but more often, and more conveniently, people contacted him by phone and email.

“I took care of anyone who phoned me, almost immediately, and you could do that,” Pokorny said of working remotely.

Bichteman could not immediately comment this week on the reasoning behind Westerlo’s requisites for its assessor. 

 

Other business

At its Nov. 19 board meeting, in other business, the board:

— Held a public hearing on a local law that seeks to refurbish the existing solid waste codes which Bichteman described during the meeting as “unenforced.” One resident asked whether there would still be a fee for televisions and another asked if solar panels would be considered hazardous waste. Later in the meeting, the law was adopted by unanimous vote pending change of a typo. It will go into effect immediately upon filing;

— Held a public hearing on a local law that seeks to establish a filing system for resident complaints regarding roads as well as remove the town’s liability for issues pertaining to unrecorded highway defects. With no questions or comments from the audience, the hearing was closed almost instantly;

— Heard from a representative of Nexamp, a company that distributes solar energy from large solar farms to homes and businesses, who expounded the benefits of a Nexamp subscription; 

— Accepted the minutes for Westerlo’s Oct. 15, 2019 town board meeting as well as for the public hearing and town board meeting of Nov. 6, 2019; and

— Convened in an executive session to discuss litigation.

 

More Hilltowns News

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo has published its reopening plan on its website. Governor Andrew Cuomo will determine the first week of August whether schools will reopen statewide. 

  • Knox and Berne have each signed an agreement that allows Berne’s dog-control officer, Jody Jansen, to shelter dogs in Knox’s kennel while Berne renovates its own Switzkill Farm kennel. 

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

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