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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, January 1, 2009

Rensselaerville in 2008: Controversy reigned over nepotism, town tab, and new zoning law

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — Controversy ruled in Rensselaerville this past year.

Power shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats on New Year’s Day, when Marie Dermody took the oath of office. Right from the start, the Democrats made changes, undoing much of what Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg had started.

The town board passed a code of ethics in August that, among other things, puts a stranglehold on nepotism, long a contentious issue in the town.

The code states that a town official’s spouse and other family members are not allowed to serve in appointed positions if their duties “conflict or appear to conflict within the scope of duties of the official,” nor may a person be part of any board, commission, or body in which his or her family member serves as an official.

Nickelsberg said in August that he thinks nepotism should be done away with completely. But despite this fact, he voted against the resolution because he disagreed with other things. He and fellow Republican Robert Lansing made up the nay-saying minority. The three Democrats carried the vote.

All in the family

“We are demanding that certain things not be allowed,” Nickelsberg said in August, “and one thing that’s not allowed is nepotism.”

And nepotism, he says, means 12 Chase family members in town jobs. “They always get first chance at whatever job they want,” said Nickelsberg.

Earlier this year, Councilman Gary Chase voted on how much his mother would make as clerk to the highway superintendent; his father, G. Jon Chase, is the highway superintendent.

“If you’re voting on your mother’s salary, it’s definitely illegal,” said Nickelsberg. “If we got sued, we’d lose. Our insurance rates would go up, and it would consume our time and town money.”

Town Attorney Joseph Catalano, who was re-appointed to his post when the democrats regained the majority on the board, has said New York’s conflict-of-interest policy states that an official should recuse himself when voting on anything that he will gain from financially.

“And, of course, Gary Chase cast the swing vote. He voted on what his mother should earn, and whether she should have the job. But if the town attorney allows it, it happens. Classic case,” Nickelsberg said in August.

When asked in January why he did not recuse himself, Chase replied, “Because I was elected by a majority of the town.”

Councilman Chase also said, “In my opinion, it’s hard enough to get people to volunteer for jobs on top of trying to find 38 new people [for] some of these jobs.” The 38 was a reference to people in town posts with family connections. During his re-election campaign, Chase had said that the town was founded on nepotism.

Nickelsberg said in August that he believes that town residents feel bullied by the Chase family. “When I went out and did some campaigning, I saw a lot of fear,” Nickelsberg said. “Some residents…have reported being denied town services for voting against the Chases. A lot of it comes from the stories; people are afraid something will happen to their family,” he said.

Town funds drinking?

This spring, 10 Rensselaerville residents sent a letter to The Enterprise editor claiming that certain town officials had inappropriately spent taxpayer money on alcoholic beverages at an Association of Towns meeting in New York City.

“Some were honest with their receipts but the majority were not,” said the letter. “We’ll leave it to your imaginations on who the dishonest ones are.”

From Feb. 17 to 19, eight elected and appointed Rensselaerville officials attended the Association of Towns’ annual meeting.

Altogether, the town spent $7,978.39 on registration fees, lodging, mileage, parking fees, cab fares, and meals, according to documents recently obtained by The Enterprise through a Freedom Of Information Law request.

Hotel bills total $4,842 for six rooms for three nights at the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan; registration fees for the meeting total $835.

Just days before the meeting, on Valentine’s Day, the Rensselaerville Town Board’s five members voted unanimously after an executive session to reimburse officials for up to $400 each with receipts for their transportation and meals, according to town minutes.  Those vouchers total $2,301.39.

Each voucher for travel and parking expenses and meals for Gifford and each of the three members of the Chase family amounts to $400.  Bradley Chase included a note that says, “Other transportation, food, tips, etc. exceed the $400 allowance for the Association of Towns annual meeting.”

Alfred Stettner, a former zoning-board member who now serves on the town’s planning board, spent $77.35 for a round trip train ticket and did not charge the town for lodging or food.  Catalano, who included an itemized list of his expenses on his voucher, spent $201 for his train and cab fares, parking, and meals. 

Jeff Pine also gave the town an itemized list; his voucher totals $261.54 for parking, meals, taxi services, a train ticket, and mileage from Rensselaerville to the Poughkeepsie train station — 150 miles at the Internal Revenue Service’s rate of reimbursement of 50.5 cents per mile.

His wife, Councilwoman Sherri Pine, spent $161.50 on train fares and meals.

“Everything is so costly down there that we try to cut a little bit by driving to Poughkeepsie and take the train in for $12,” said Gary Chase earlier in the year. “If you take the train in from Hudson, it’s $70.  So we tried to cut costs there.”

A lot of people who attend the meeting drive, he said.  If Rensselaerville officials did, said Chase, each would be up to $200 or $250 in reimbursement costs for mileage before doing anything.

Richard Tollner, the town’s deputy supervisor, questioned their spending.  He wrote on an official’s voucher, “Advise town board to have stipulation [of] $100 per day and no alcohol.”

“Now we all have spent ‘our time and our dimes’ drinking alcoholic beverages,” the letter from the 10 town residents said, “but apparently some of your representatives feel they can spend your dimes, too.”

New zoning challenged

An April 23 state Supreme Court decision nullified and voided Rensselaerville’s new zoning law.

“We expected to win it,” said Vernon Husek in May. Husek founded and leads Rensselaerville Farmland Protection, a grassroots group that sued the town in January over its new zoning law, adopted in December of 2007.

In its suit, RFP drew attention to an inconsistency in Rensselaerville planning.

The town’s master plan, unanimously adopted by the town board in March of 2007 and used as a template to draft new zoning laws, called for one dwelling per 20 acres in the town’s agricultural district. But that requirement was not followed when the town board, in another unanimous decision, adopted in December a new zoning law, which included a five-acre requirement.

But the inconsistency between the master plan and the adopted law was not the reason the town’s zoning law was nullified.

The town violated the state’s Open Meetings Law by failing to publish a notice of the special meeting that followed the Dec. 19 public hearing, according to the decision by Judge John C. Egan Jr.

The judge did not rule on RFP’s other contentions — about the need for the zoning to follow the comprehensive plan — because the violation of the Open Meetings Law was a threshold issue that settled the case.

— Original reporting on the Association of Towns convention and the Rensselaerville Farmland Protection suit by Tyler Schuling.

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