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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, February 22, 2007

"Pain-in-the-whazoo" FOILs Price

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — A frustrated citizen, filing a Freedom of Information Law request with the town clerk’s office last month, questioned the town board about its record-keeping last week and is asking for the resignation of long-time planning board Chairman Robert Price.

"I have no comment whatsoever about it," Price told The Enterprise this week.

Edward Ackroyd, the frustrated citizen, has a history of being outspoken about proper democratic procedures, and was successful in a legal skirmish three years ago with the Berne Fire District, which had not provided the required absentee ballots.

Price’s leadership has been questioned before, as the town board hesitated in 2005 to re-appoint him as chair of the planning board after Republican members raised concerns about an incident of what they called "road rage" at the town’s transfer station.

"I am outraged," a Feb. 7 letter from Ackroyd to Supervisor Michael Hammond says. "I have been forced to utilize the FOIL law to access laws that should be readily available to any member of the public. But then to be forced to be held up to public ridicule by Mr. Price is utterly unacceptable," he wrote.

On Jan. 13, Ackroyd requested, "an updated and current copy of the town of Knox, N.Y. zoning ordinance." After submitting his request, he visited Town Hall, where Kimberly Swain, the town clerk, showed him an e-mail she received from Price in response to his request, a February letter from Ackroyd to Hammond says.

"Mr. Ackroyd has raised his pain-in-the-whazoo head yet again," says Price to Hammond in a Jan. 16 e-mail message, on file at the clerk’s office.

"He has been coming to [planning board] meetings and asking all sorts of difficult to answer questions," it says.

"Which is good since it keeps us on our toes, but his holier than thou, and I know more than you guys do since I sit on the BKW school board attitude is tiresome at best," Price’s e-mail to Hammond says.

Ackroyd is the vice president of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board.

The planning board, the e-mail says, "is not currently working on a revised version of the zoning ordinance"because we are working on other things"."

"As far as I know, the town is not under any obligation to jump through hoops to satisfy Mr. Ackroyd’s need for an up-to-date version of the (zoning ordinance). He is just being a pest," it says.

Ackroyd presented the e-mail message to the town board and said Price’s behavior was "totally unacceptable."

Town Board members were perplexed last week. Councilman Nicholas Viscio said, "All revisions to any zoning ordinances should be on file here".There’s got to be copies of it."

"There’s got to be an updated copy somewhere," said Councilman Dennis Decker, adding, "It’s not like it’s a top-secret document."

"I understand that. I can live with that. That letter I can’t live with. I don’t deserve that. No taxpayer deserves that," Ackroyd responded.

"No one does. Agreed," Decker said.

"I would like to request that appropriate disciplinary action be taken against Mr. Price," says a Feb. 7 letter from Ackroyd to Supervisor Hammond; Ackroyd also sent a copy of the letter to Michael Rhodes-Devey, his attorney.

Missing information

"I have the book — the book that’s available — but it’s not updated," said Ackroyd. "I’m looking for all the changes that have been made since 1999 that are not in the book," he said. The Enterprise requested a copy of the zoning ordinance last week, and promptly received a copy for $6. The zoning ordinance is dated February of 1999.

Last year, the planning board made an illegal vote because records were poorly organized. Since creating its new website, the town posts minutes of planning, zoning, and town board meetings.

Hammond asked Swain what is missing from the zoning ordinance on file.

"Past years," she responded.

Last week, Ackroyd told the board that it has been 30 days since he filed his request, adding that, according to state law, "There’s a timeline" for providing information for FOIL requests. The request must be acknowledged within five days, and information is to be provided within 30 days.

"The information’s one thing. That letter is another," he said.

Ackroyd asked if the letter addressed from Price to Hammond, dated three days after he filed his request, is the town’s response to his request for the zoning ordinance.

"I don’t know if you’d call it a response or not," said Ackroyd, after Councilman Viscio asked Ackroyd if he received a response to his request.

"It was within five days of the FOIL request. Is that the response"" Ackroyd asked.

"In any town government or any federal government or any business, if someone in their organization had done that, they’d been fired, done, finished," Ackroyd told The Enterprise after last Tuesday’s board meeting.

Another page on file with the clerk’s office, addressed to Price from Supervisor Hammond says, "Bob, would you please contact Kim Swain regarding this matter""

Price left the meeting before Ackroyd addressed the board.

"The town clerk is going to get crucified for this, and she shouldn’t. She did her job," Ackroyd told The Enterprise after the meeting.

Board unaware

Ackroyd asked the board if it was the practice in Knox "to chastise and criticize and crucify the people" who file Freedom of Information Law requests.

"No," Hammond said.

"Is the board aware of what happened"" Ackroyd asked Hammond of the e-mail, and Hammond responded, "I don’t know how much the board is aware of it."

"Did you make that information available"" Ackroyd asked Hammond, later saying Hammond has a letter from Ackroyd asking for Price’s resignation.

Ackroyd presented Price’s e-mail to the town board, and the board deliberated, with the board members and the town clerk questioning where the updates to the zoning ordinance were located. The board then read the letter. Resident Philip Stevens recommended the board go into executive session and "straighten this thing out."

John Dorfman, the town’s attorney, questioned how it came into Ackroyd’s possession. Dorfman also asked who had seen the letter, and whether it had been "published to the world."

Dorfman asked Ackroyd if "the letter had been provided directly to him by the author."

"Directly to me, no," said Ackroyd, adding that it is on file in the clerk’s office.

"I’m not in any way"commenting on the inappropriateness of the letter one way or the other," said Dorfman.

Dorfman asked Ackroyd if "whatever was given to the public was not provided to the public directly from the author."

"You have a copy of it, some people in town have a copy of it, and that’s it. Is that fair to say"" he asked.

"It is available to the world," said Ackroyd, adding that he has shown other people.

"Your FOIL request was for a specific document"You got a little extra. I’m not saying it was right. I’m not saying it was wrong, but you got a little extra," said Dorfman.

The board then adjourned the meeting and searched town files for changes and updates made since 1999 to the zoning ordinance.

Past lawsuit

In the fall of 2004, as the Berne Fire District’s election approached, Ackroyd sued the district for not providing absentee ballots. Ackroyd’s son, Wade, was away at college, and wanted to vote for fire commissioners and on the purchase of a new quarter-million dollar firetruck. The suit resulted in the fire district issuing absentee ballots and changing the date of the election to accommodate the ballots.

The Berne Fire District paid Ackroyd’s court fees, amounting to $550, which garnered harsh criticism of Ackroyd’s methods from Mary Alice Molgard, vice president of the commissioners of the Berne Fire District.

In December of 2005, Molgard said she was frustrated with how Ackroyd handled the situation from the beginning. He never made his argument about the absentee ballots to the fire commissioners, she said; instead, Ackroyd went straight to the courts.

"We were never informed about any of this," Molgard said. "If he had requested this of us, we would’ve considered it."

Ackroyd’s lawsuit ended up costing the fire district three to four times what it would have if Ackroyd had pursued it through the board of commissioners rather than the courts.

"We ended up spending a lot of taxpayer money that could have been easily avoided," Molgard said.

Molgard pointed out that Berne is not the only fire district that traditionally holds elections with little advertisement and no absentee ballots.

"It’s not just Berne, it’s all over the place," she said.

Ackroyd gave copies of his legal documents to district Supervisor Steven Schrade to pass on to the high-school government teacher to be used in a lesson on local government.

"If they were doing their jobs, I wouldn’t have gone to court in the first place," Ackroyd said.

Past incident

At its re-organizational meeting on Jan. 1, 2005, with four board members attending, the town board did not reappoint Price, who has served for over a decade, as chairman of the planning board; all board members abstained from voting. At its January meeting, the town board voted unanimously to reappoint him.

After the 2005 re-organizational meeting, Councilman Joe Best told The Enterprise the hesitancy to appoint Price was because of an incident at the town transfer station that was brought to the board’s attention at its December meeting. Knox resident Tom Gagnon told the board he had witnessed someone, later identified to be Price, pulling up in front of other cars and displaying an intense attitude as he emptied his trash and pulled away. Gagnon said he was afraid to approach Price at the transfer station.

"Bob is a valuable member of the planning board who has given a lot of good direction and leadership," said Hammond after the 2005 re-organizational meeting.

The following week, Price defended himself, saying he was irritated at the transfer station because another vehicle was taking up two spaces.

"I’m one of those ordinary human beings who, when I’m treated as if I didn’t exist, I get bothered," Price said. "Was I annoyed to be displaced" Yes. I didn’t have a bright and cheery expression on my face."

Price said he had not made any other threats or threatening gestures.

At it’s January 2005 meeting, before voting, Viscio called the time that had passed since the re-organizational meeting a "natural pause."

Viscio said Gagnon’s presentation was dramatic and required the board’s taking time to consider it. "I think it was a natural thing for the board to pause and reflect on its role in ethics in making a decision. I don’t think it was a reflection of any sort on the work of any individual."

Viscio commended Price for his work on the planning board.

"I think he has done a good job for the town; that’s not to be taken away," he said.

Other business

In other business, the town board:

— Voted unanimously to purchase a new industrial-use Challenger tractor for $74,100 for the town’s highway department, subject to the passage of permissive referendum. Gary Salisbury, the highway superintendent, reported that the department’s tractor, purchased in 1977, is "the last old piece of equipment" in the department. The new tractor, he said, could be used year-round for different reasons. "I feel comfortable since it’s backed by Caterpillar," he said. "I can’t see Caterpillar making something bad";

— Accepted the resignation, effective immediately, of planning board member William Bellerjeau. The board appointed Betty Ketchum to replace Bellerjeau and complete the unexpired portion of his term.

"I think she would be a valuable asset to the board," said Price. "The planning board would like to have a woman";

— Heard from Price that he received a notice from Albany County, saying there will be four meetings in the middle of March on flood mappings. "I think it would be worthwhile to go," said Price;

— Authorized Hammond to make an annual payment of $18,355 and renew the town’s contract with the Altamont Rescue Squad for services in 2007, and also authorized an annual payment of $22,000 to renew the town’s contract with the Helderberg Rescue Squad. Knox has no rescue squad of its own but contracts with the Altamont and Helderberg squads for coverage;

— Authorized Hammond to make an annual payment of $39,250 and renew the town’s contract with Guilderland’s Advanced Life Support for services in 2007.

— Authorized Hammond to make an annual payment of $5,000 to the Altamont Library for services, and $800 to the Berne Library. Knox has no library of its own; residents use the libraries in Altamont and Berne;

— Heard from Hammond that the Albany County Department of Health rabies vaccination clinic for dogs, cats, and ferrets will be held at the Berne Highway Garage on March 24 from 1 to 4 p.m. Donations are $5 for each animal, said Hammond;

— Heard from Hammond that the town did not receive any responses for its request for a grant writer for the planned renovation of Town Hall. Councilwoman Gage recommended a commercial notice be published in The Altamont Enterprise, the town’s official newspaper;

— Heard from Price that the planning board has nearly completed its draft of an ordinance of Personal Wireless Service Facilities for cell towers and communication towers. The moratorium for the cell tower ordinance expires at the end of May, said Price. "Some terms need to be scrutinized," said Price. "We’d like to get it done so we have a law in the books," he said; and

— Heard from Price, "The town may have another applicant for a personal wind turbine." Price said a conference held in Europe has "made people more aware of what we’re doing to our environment."

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