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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, April 17, 2008

After one year
Laub booted off Westerlo Planning Board

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — Leonard Laub, the chairman of the town’s planning board, was removed from office Tuesday night.  After holding a public hearing, the town board’s vote was unanimous. 

Laub, who was appointed as the planning-board chairman just a year ago, has not filled out a Civil Service application, a requirement that town officials have said has long been in place. 

After the town board dissolved the planning board 15 years ago because developers complained about delays, it set up a planning board last year with Laub as its chair.  Under Laub, the board has started a process to create Westerlo’s first comprehensive land-use plan. 

A January letter from Laub to the town board says he consulted the state’s Office of the State Comptroller and Department of State; in his discussions with both, he said, it is his understanding that, when not taking compensation, the only document needed for his position is the oath of office, which he took one year ago. 

In February, as Westerlo did not have a written policy for the application, the town board passed a resolution for all hired and appointed employees to fill out the form. 

“This matter came up right at the end of December, before the next fiscal year came about, which was Jan. 1,” said the town’s attorney, Aline Galgay.  “This all started the beginning of December, to get this all squared away, so it was in place for the next fiscal year.”

At its re-organizational meeting, on Jan. 1, the town board appointed members to the town’s various boards and set the chairman of the planning board’s salary at $4,500.

Laub declined the pay. 

Since appointing Laub to the planning board last year, the town has issued him a Civil Service application many times.  The town also issued him checks, which he returned. 

Officials have insisted employees fill out the form for financial and auditing purposes.  Laub has insisted that he doesn’t want to be an employee of the town or be compensated with pay or pension and that two state agencies he contacted have said a form isn’t necessary. 

Councilman Ed Rash said Tuesday that the form is needed for the county to recognize Laub should he go before any of its boards.  Rash said employees must be covered under the town’s insurance in case they do something wrong, and that the town’s insurance goes “skyrocketing” each year. 

“We got chastised for not being quick on getting the things back and issuing the checks,” Rash said.  “Trying to be the nice guy in a small town — you can’t do it anymore.  The state rides you…They’re right on you.”

In February, Laub had still not filled out the form.  The town board then acted on the advice of its audit consultant, Bob Fischer, and passed a resolution to make a Civil Service application a requirement for all appointed and hired employees.

“The only reason it became a resolution that the town board put into effect was because there was a situation where an individual who had been appointed for a paid position did not fill it out and our auditor wanted us to pass it as the town and send a report to the comptroller and we have issues with that, that we as a town have to deal with,” said Galgay.  “It came down to having to fill out that application.  If someone chooses not to fill it out for whatever their personal reasons are, that’s fine, but then they have to forgo being in that paid position.  Whether they accept payment or not, it is a paid position.  It is not a voluntary position.” 

If an employee chooses not to keep his salary, he is permitted, legally, to donate it back to the town, Galgay said.  “Unfortunately, the town is a municipality.  It’s not an employment organization.  We run under State Audit and Control requirements and regulations.”

Laub questioned whether the February resolution was discriminatory.  Laub said letters he had received from the town, most of them from before the town passed a resolution on Feb. 6, were “based on what turned out to be inaccurate statement of the law.” 

 “Laws are not supposed to be made about just one person,” he told The Enterprise in an e-mail message after the hearing. 

On Tuesday, Laub told the board he took the oath and signed in and didn’t hear a response to his letter to the board.  He and his wife, Bonnie Laub, disagreed sharply with officials over understandings from an interview a year ago; both said he told the board when he was interviewed that he didn’t want to be an employee of the town or be compensated.  Rash and Councilman R. Gregory Zeh Jr. said Tuesday that Laub said he wanted to donate the money back to the town. 

“Mr. Laub didn’t want to take the money, but the money was appropriated for the position,” said Rash, “so we have to hold that money through the end of the year should he change his mind at some point and want to get reimbursed.”

Richard Rapp, Westerlo’s supervisor, asked Laub at the beginning of the hearing whether he had any intention to fill out an application.  He said he did not.  Rash suggested that Laub instead serve as an advisor and a consultant to the planning board. 

Public Forum

Throughout Tuesday’s hearing, Galgay told the board that it was required to abide by the public notice it had issued and only discuss the issue that was posted. 

Before any members of the audience had spoken, Rapp said, “He leaves us no choice.  Do I hear a motion?”

“Is there going to be a public hearing?” Laub asked. 

“This is a public hearing,” Rapp responded. 

Laub asked if the public will get to address the board at any point.  “I thought that was the point of the public hearing,” he said. 

Galgay said the public is always permitted, based on the board’s decision of addressing the board.  The board has the right to determine how long any one person can speak and the subject matters on which people can speak, she said. 

“It would appear that the board, in holding a public hearing, would want to hear from the public before it took action,” Laub said. 

“While I agree with you that a public hearing is for public comment, those public comments are strictly related to the issue at hand,” said Galgay.

“You aren’t having a public hearing on whether or not enough money has been appropriated for the comp. plan,” she said.  “If you choose to ignore what I’m saying, that’s your business, but, under a public hearing notice, it’s really very important that you stick with the subject in the public hearing notice.”

Otherwise, she said, the board would be at fault for discussing something it didn’t give the remainder of the constituency an opportunity to discuss. 

Public on Laub

At the hearing, some residents advocated for Laub and questioned the recent requirement passed by the board. 

NancyQuay Milner, the wife of planning-board member, Jack Milner, said, “I have a problem with a motion being passed…I see a gentleman by the name of Leonard Laub that certainly is talented and has the time and wants to serve pro bono, and I don’t know any other organization that would not accept that offer.  It seems to me that this is a gift on a silver platter, and it’s not being accepted, and I just don’t quite understand that.”

Jack Milner said, “I think it would be a very bad mistake getting him off the planning board.  He’s got the time and he’s got the knowledge.”  Milner asked why the town board “made up the law” in February.  He demanded an answer.

“I guess nobody ever didn’t fill it out before,” said Rash.  “We were never presented with a problem before.  We’re getting checks back that we issue and we have an account and a line item in our budget that we answer to.”

Another resident said, in his 32 years as a school teacher, he has learned about peace-keeping and compromise. 

“You have a talented person here,” he said, and cited Rash’s early point of including Laub in the proceedings of the comprehensive plan in an advisory capacity and recommended constructing a resolution that would bring him on board so the community doesn’t lose his services. 

Some residents spoke in favor of officials complying with the town’s requirement. 

“If somebody is going to have a vote on something that goes on in the town, I think they should fill out the application,” said resident Edwin Stevens.  “If you’re going to sit on a board and be able to control my future, you should have to abide by what the town says.”

Another resident asked, “If the person on the planning board doesn’t have any respect for town law, why should the people in the town have any respect for the planning board’s laws?  Once they come up with the plan, we have to live with it.  We live in the town.”

Before the town board closed the hearing, Laub said he would like the town board to recognize the planning board and its role in the comprehensive plan and to “stop a limbo situation that demoralizes the planning board.” 

“I’d like to follow the laws, just as surely as you’d like to see the laws followed,” he said.  

ECS to manage cell tower for Knox

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — Knox is moving forward with plans to build a cellular tower on Street Road. 

Last week, the town board voted unanimously for its attorney, John Dorfman, to draft a proposed contract with Enterprise Consulting Solutions to be the site manager for the project.

Throughout this year, officials have discussed raising a tower at the site, which is on property owned by the town near the Knox transfer station.

If a contract is ratified, ECS would oversee the construction of the tower and negotiate with cellular service providers.  ECS would then pay the town a percentage of the rent it receives for space on the tower.  

Before last Tuesday’s meeting, Michael Hammond, the town’s supervisor; Robert Price, the chairman of the town’s planning board; Dorfman; and members of the town board had met with three companies — ECS of Slingerlands, JNS Enterprises of Central Valley (Orange County), and Infinigy, which has an office in Albany.

Hammond and Price spoke in favor of ECS.

“I found that the ECS company would probably fit the profile of what we’re looking for and be best for the town,” said Hammond.

Enterprise Consulting Solutions is owned by Scott Carroll and represented by Jacqueline Phillips Murray.  The company is currently working on a tower in the nearby town of New Scotland.  Last week, Bill Biscone, who represented ECS and has attended many Knox meetings, said construction on the New Scotland tower will begin in late May or early June. 

Last month, the Knox Town Board voted unanimously to remove a portion of the town’s 5.4-acre property on Street Road from a land conservation district.  The zoning change was protested by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, which has a nature preserve near the site. 

Residents who live nearby also spoke out against erecting a tower at the site; some were concerned a tower would contamination their water and mar their view.  Town officials said a tower will not contaminate groundwater or produce any effluents.  At the end of February, Verizon came to Knox and raised a crane at the town’s transfer station on Street Road to take electronic readings. 

“Some companies have a lot more experience than ECS.  Some companies are much larger,” said Price last week.  “But, if you factor in all of the things that go into…the project, it is my view that ECS is probably the best choice.

“They’re very local, not that one of the other companies isn’t local, but there is no question that, if ECS is awarded this, they will focus on Knox requirements,” Price said.

“While it may sound naïve, they are represented by an extremely good attorney,” he said, “and it’s my experience that if you’re negotiating with somebody, it’s best to have the other side represented by someone who really knows what they’re doing…From that confidence level, that separates ECS from the other guys.”

Councilman Nicholas Viscio said he wasn’t at a meeting in which board members discussed site managers and asked Biscone what he called “pointed questions” and questions he said he would ask any new company. 

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” said Viscio. “[The New Scotland tower is] the only tower project that you have waiting, ready to build right now?”  Biscone said it is.  Biscone said he has been in the industry for nine years and worked with all major carriers in Maine, Connecticut, and New York.  “This is becoming more of a focus,” he said, “and we’re looking at several other sites outside of this area, outside the town of Knox.”

“Worst-case scenario up here,” Viscio said, “The company doesn’t pan out.  We’ve got a tower built over here.  Where do we go?  What happens?” he asked.  “I’m not questioning the viability of your company, but I’m just looking at the fact that, if we have a situation where we don’t have a manager at some point — given an unforeseen economic situation — where does that leave the town?”

“We own it,” said Dorfman.

Biscone said there is a termination clause, and, if the town is not receiving its percentage of revenue from ECS, the town could then terminate the contract.


To project revenue, Price created two spreadsheets that span 10 years.  He called his estimates for the rent charged to service providers — the revenue Knox would receive — conservative.  Price figured that the first carrier will be online the first year, the second carrier online in the second, and a third carrier on the tower in the fourth year. 

He considered two scenarios that had been presented to him by ECS’s president.  The town and ECS would either split the rent charged to cellular carriers 50/50, or 53/47, with Knox receiving 53 percent.  Each year, rent would increase 3 percent for each carrier. 

In the first scenario, with the town and ECS receiving equal sums from providers, Knox would also receive 10 percent of a carrier’s construction costs, which, according to a letter from Carroll to Price, would be between $4,000 and $5,000 per carrier. 

In creating the spreadsheets, Price’s goal was to find out how many years it would be before the 53/47 and 50/50 splits would have accrued the same amount in revenues.  After a decade, under either plan, Knox would receive in the range of $200,000, according to Price’s calculations.  He told The Enterprise this week, “Probably, the revenue numbers I did are low.”  He said the “cross over” — the year in which the 53/47 split would surpass the 50/50 split — would be even sooner if a third provider comes on the tower before the fourth year. 

Other business

In other business, the Knox Town Board:

— Voted unanimously for Hammond to attend a conference on bookkeeping for capital projects on May 14 at the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Springs.  The town is currently working on a plan to renovate Town Hall, and Susan Lombardi, the town’s grant writer, is seeking grants; and

— Heard from Hammond that Earl Barcomb Sr. has resigned.  Barcomb is the chairman of the town’s zoning board of appeals.  The town board voted unanimously to appoint Bob Edwards as the board’s chair. 

Writer teaches self-respect makes life bearable

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Respect yourself.  Treat others with respect.  And make The Rest of Your Life the most fantastic story you have ever told. 

This is what Ben Mikaelsen, best-selling author of books for young adults, told Berne-Knox-Westerlo middle-school students earlier this month. 

“I love looking at an audience like you because what I see is diversity.  I see differences,” Mikaelsen said to the students.  “Look at you — your clothes, your hairstyles, your skin color.  You are all so wonderfully, wonderfully different.” 

Best known for his novel Touching Spirit Bear, Mikaelsen has written nine novels for young adults.  He called the award-winning book “my emotional autobiography.” 

His protagonist is Cole Matthews, an angry, hateful ninth-grader from Minneapolis who beats up a classmate and faces jail time.  But a Tlingit Indian parole officer offers an alternative and Matthews is banished to an Alaskan island.  There, after he is mauled by a white bear, he is transformed from a young man full of hate, anger, and blame into a person who takes responsibility for his life. 

Mikaelsen wrote a sequel to the novel — Ghost of Spirit Bear.

Hero of his own story

It takes Mikaelsen about a year and a half to write a book and, once he’s finished one, he reads it cover to cover non-stop.  His own life story reads like a tall tale. 

He flies airplanes.  He’s been on an expedition to the North Pole.  He’s gone swimming with dolphins and plunged from cliffs.  He’s won the Minnesota state skydiving championship, and he lives in Montana, where he walks in the wilderness with Buffy, a 750-pound eastern black bear he has raised for 25 years. 

It’s not unusual for him to get 100 letters a day from fans.  He spends hours editing his stories in Buffy’s pen and theatrically reads whatever he’s rewritten aloud to the bear.

“I don’t know anybody who has as much fun as me,” Mikaelsen said. 

It’s a long way from where he started. 

Born in Bolivia, South America, where Spanish was the primary language, Mikaelsen was raised in the mountains and wasn’t schooled until fourth grade. 

He was branded as “the dumb kid,” he said, and struggled in school.  He scored at the fifth-grade level in English on his college entrance exams.  In college, his first essay was covered with so many red marks, Mikaelsen said, that “it looked like a pizza.” 

His professor, however, thought he was a wonderful writer and told him his story was the only one that made him laugh and cry.  But the professor saw that Mikaelsen had difficulty with the English language and instructed him to be tutored for an hour each day.  Otherwise, his professor said, he was going to be one of the most frustrated human beings alive.

“My very first day of education in my entire life I was 9 years old,” Mikaelsen said.  “I couldn’t read or write.  I could barely speak English.  Things got ugly.”

What was uglier was the torment his classmates inflicted on him, in both Bolivia and in the United States.  In Bolivia, everyone was short, wore the same clothes, and had the same color of skin and hair, he said.  But he was different because he was white.  His schoolmates called him “dumb gringo.”  To fit in, he once covered his body with dark shoe polish. 

“Because of all the teasing, I started thinking something was wrong with me,” Mikaelsen said. 

But, at boarding school, he discovered something: letters made words, words made sentences, and sentences made stories.  “And I had about a zillion stories in my head,” he said.   

At night, he hid under his covers with a flashlight, a pen, and paper after everyone else in his dorm room went to sleep. 

“I was the dumbest kid in school, I swear, but I always had ideas,” Mikaelsen said.

But, he said, he still couldn’t stop the teasing.  And, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t change the color of his skin. 

Looking back

Today, when Mikaelsen thinks of bullies, it still makes him angry. 

Bullies may be big, tough, even popular, he said, but, inside, where it counts, they feel tiny, inadequate, and insecure.  They are always sarcastic, Mikaelsen said, and they are in every school across America.  He said he has never met a successful bully. 

“You’re not invisible,” he told the middle-schoolers.  “You are not anonymous.”

Mikaelsen said Buffy saved his life because he saved him from himself. 

“The problem was that I didn’t know what to do with my anger,” he said.  “I became a bully.  It happened very slowly,” he said.  “I started hitting other students.  I thought I was so cool and so tough.” 

He was not a very good person, he said, and he couldn’t be trusted. 

Buffy, he said, taught him who the “scaredest” students are and who the biggest and strongest students are.

Author on honor

Mikaelsen challenged the students to make a difference — in their school, in their own lives, and on the planet.  Each, he said, is the author of a story.  The name of the story?  The Rest of Your Life.

“Students, what I’m here today to tell you is that you are a whole, whole lot more than even you can imagine,” said Mikaelsen.  “But what are you?” he asked. “And that’s what life is about…discovering that.”  But, he said, there’s one thing that gets in the way — pride. 

Every morning, he said, he has “quiet time” — five minutes when he tells himself, “Today is my day.”

“My life, your lives,” Mikaelsen said. “They are the most important stories that we will ever, ever tell.  And, so, students, every morning I remind myself that, ‘All right then, if my life is a story, and if, in fact, I am the author of that story, well then, I guess what it means is that today is a brand new chapter, and it means that I am the author of that chapter.’”

Before taking questions from students, Mikaelsen ended his presentation with some words on honor. 

“It’s an honor as an author to come to a school where I see students like you having read my books.  That’s a real honor,” he said.  “But I will tell you this: If you take the stories that you’re reading in my books and you take the lessons that those stories have to tell you and you make your stories bigger and better because of it, what you have done is you have honored yourself.  And that is the greatest way you can honor anything on this planet is to honor yourself.”

Is the wind of change blowing in Berne?

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Berne will soon be reviewing and updating its plan for land use, and the town’s planning and conservation boards have drafted a wind-tower ordinance. 

The town’s comprehensive plan was completed in April of 1992.

The town board will soon appoint one member each from the planning, town, and conservation boards and four or five residents to evaluate the plan.  Nan Stolzenburg of Community Planning and Environmental Associates, who has worked with the town on several other projects, will work with the committee and schedule meetings with the public.

“We want to try and have as much public input as possible,” said Stolzenburg this week.  She listed many ways to gather information — sending a survey to all of the town’s residents, holding a series of workshops, and forming smaller focus groups.  There will be required public hearings, Stolzenburg said, and articles will be published on the town’s website and in its newsletter. 

“The comprehensive plan is old,” Supervisor Kevin Crosier told The Enterprise last week.  “Now, a lot of the data might have changed.  A lot of the visions that people had may not have changed like protecting their rural character, protecting their scenic views, promoting agriculture,” he said.  “All that stuff, when you look at communities that review their comprehensive plans, you find that the residents, actually, even 20 years later, will still mirror that.  So, even if they mirror that, we still need to talk about these other alternative sources and find ways that they may fit into the new comprehensive plan so that everybody will feel protected.”

Crosier said the town will apply for a $25,000 grant through the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets.  The grant is to be used to develop agricultural and farmland protection plans.  Municipalities are eligible for up to $25,000 or 75 percent of the cost of planning.  The grant stipulates towns pay $8,333 of the $25,000 and $1,667 has to be cash; $6,666 can be in kind services.  Two towns can join together and receive $50,000.

As Berne did not have an ordinance for personal or commercial windmills, the planning board reviewed and last year approved a personal windmill to be erected at a residence on Woodstock Road. 

Councilman Peter Vance told The Enterprise yesterday of the draft of the wind ordinance, “I don’t think it does any good to let it lie.” 

The planning board is currently meeting in workshop sessions to study the comprehensive plan.  The board is primarily looking at definitions, he said.  “We need to plug some things up,” said Vance, and “shore it up so that people can’t circumvent the intent.”  The comprehensive planning process, he said, is scheduled to last 18 months “under optimal conditions.” 

“I don’t think we can wait that long to deal with wind,” said Vance.

Minimally, he said, the town needs to have a law in place for residential windmills first.

The update to the comprehensive plan, Crosier said, will include wind energy.  As the town updates the plan, he said, “We will be talking to the public and residents about wind power because the new plan has to reflect those types of things.”

“Our zoning, our ordinances, all come from our comprehensive plan so we want to make sure that the public is well informed, that they’re well-educated, and that both sides of the issue are discussed so that, in the end, we’re able to put together a comprehensive plan that has been given a lot of thought,” he said.

“I mean, these things are so controversial,” said Crosier, siting recent public outcry in Schoharie County. 

Rensselaerville, located just south of Berne, adopted a comprehensive land-use plan last year.  After the town board had unanimously adopted the plan, the chairman of the committee that designed it resigned.  He didn’t agree with the majority of the committee voting for smaller lots in the agricultural district; he formed Rensselaerville Farmland Protection, which has sued the town over its new zoning law. 

“And we don’t want that,” Crosier said of the controversy in Schoharie County.  “What happens when people get in a rush to do this type of stuff — and the public isn’t aware or they’re not informed enough — that’s when all the misinterpretations happen and that’s when all the problems happen.”

Women sought for interviews on health needs

 BERNE — Community Cradle wants to interview Hilltown women about health issues to find out what kind of care they are getting and what they need.

The organization serves Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer counties, and is funded by the state’s Department of Health, said Executive Director Lucy Pulitzer.

“We do prenatal and postnatal care and work on family health issues,” said Pulitzer. “We do training programs and have a resource directory.”

She described Community Cradle as “very small” with just two full-time workers.

“We’re not serving the rural areas the way we’d like to,” said Pulitzer.

Hence, Amanda Mulhern, an outreach health educator, will be interviewing women between the ages of 18 and 60 at Families Together, at St. John’s Church, on Tuesday, April 29, from 10 a.m. to noon.

Each interview will take 15 to 20 minutes. Gift cards and other incentives will be offered to each woman who completes an interview. No registration is required. Volunteers may just walk in.

“The goal,” said Pulitzer, “is to seek additional funds to provide services in rural areas.”

The interviews will help Community Cradle pinpoint the needs.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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