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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 22, 2012

She blames politics
Will Stewart be removed from board?

NEW SCOTLAND – Town board members will decide Wednesday at a public hearing if they will remove planning board member Elizabeth Stewart from her position due to a lack of attendance at meetings. Stewart maintains she is being ousted because of her views favoring commercial development.

In May 2010, the town board unanimously adopted the local law making it possible to remove members of the planning board who annually missed three of 12 regularly scheduled monthly meetings or any two consecutive meetings in that same period, explained one of the law’s main authors and supporters, Councilmen Douglas LaGrange.

Supervisor Thomas Dolin said Stewart was the first board member to be subjected to a hearing using the law and is the law’s first violator, since the town began enforcing the measure in 2011.

According to the town clerk’s office, Stewart missed four of the monthly meetings in 2011; two of those were also consecutive absences. The clerk reported Stewart failed to appear for planning board meetings in February, April, May, and October last year.

Stewart confirmed her absences by phone this week and acknowledged her support of passage of the 2010 law, when the planning board reviewed and unanimously endorsed the proposal. However, Stewart questions the reasons for her specific hearing and her possible dismissal, linking the acts to her political stance regarding commercial development.

Stewart said her absences were the result of “personal health issues,” of which town board members are aware. She declined to discuss them in detail, citing family and medical privacy concerns. She also noted her six years of service on the planning board as relevant.

“I assume they are going to keep me on the board,” she said. When asked why she thought she was being summoned for the hearing, she replied, “I’m not voting the way some people want me to vote.”

She also claimed receiving phone calls since the hearing was scheduled, asking her to change her position regarding a law coming before the board that would cap the size of commercial buildings.

Stewart said that, like many town officials, she became embroiled in an ongoing commercial property debate after Sphere Development proposed building a Target-anchored mall on the old Bender melon farm.

“Town law is being put in place to really restrict commercial development — to basically make it impossible for people to come in and do any building on the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars scale,” she said. Stewart said she defended the rights of landowners, who she said paid taxes on properties assessed for commercial development but were prevented from selling to commercial buyers.

“I don’t want to make the commercial zone more restrictive; I want a commercial tax base,” she said. Stewart recalled the two issues she heard the most when seeking a position on the planning board about six years ago: property tax relief and cell-phone coverage.

“You get residential school property tax relief by increasing commercial development,” she said.

Though Stewart claims politics are playing a role in her possible dismissal, Dolin and LaGrange disagree. Both men acknowledge they hold views on commercial property development that are different than Stewart’s but deny that has played a role in calling a hearing.

“You can always try to play the ‘poor me’ politics but, quite frankly, Beth was appointed to the board in a political move. Even if it was politics, we could have removed her last year,” said LaGrange.

LaGrange said Stewart’s attendance record since 2006 speaks for itself.

According to board records, Stewart missed four meetings in 2010 and again in 2011. However, Dolin explained the town board decided not to enforce the law right away and waited more than half a year, until January 2011, to “allow everyone plenty of time to adjust.”

According to board records, Stewart has missed a total of 18 regular meetings since her appointment in 2006.

“Is that fair to the taxpayer? To ask the taxpayer to pay her for six years of meetings when she hasn’t attended a year and a half of them?” asked LaGrange.

Dolin reported planning board members each receive an annual salary of about $1,700

Planning Board Chairmen Charles Voss was quick to say he sympathized with Stewart and any personal issues she may be facing but added, “The law is the law.”

“Beth contributed a lot of great things to the board, no doubt about that. But, if issues at home are pulling her away too often, maybe she should step down — there’s nothing wrong with that at all,” he said.

“When it comes down to it, it places an unfair burden on the applicants before the board, an undue cost to applicants — they have to hire consultants and other professionals and a hold-up can be expensive. Another thing it comes down to is being able to make informed decisions as a board member. You can’t do that if you’re not there, and it’s not fair to the public,” said LaGrange.

Voss said good attendance at certain planning meetings was vital. “Usually, the processes that can come are relatively complex and may span many meetings,” he said. They can involve preliminary presentations, public hearings — some things can take two months, other larger projects might take an entire year to complete. What’s important is everyone on the board has a continuity of understanding and information,” said Voss, who referred to the fact the entire planning board approved the attendance policy.

“We all had our say in shaping the policy, reviewed it, added our comments, and passed it,” said Voss. “I don’t see politics. I see good government. I suppose someone could make any argument. The reality is she missed eight meetings in two years. I sympathize with her, her family, but it is what it is.”

LaGrange said he was frustrated that Stewart believes the process is politically motivated and stressed that he and other board members wished to avoid such an incident. LaGrange went on to describe Voss’s appointment as chairman by a town board with a majority that favored a commercial size cap. “If somehow the world was turned and it was someone else in her position, like Mr. Voss, I’d still feel the same way about it,” said LaGrange.

Dolin said he had not made any decision regarding the hearing. “I’m going to keep my mind open, I’m not prejudging anything,” said the supervisor, who was formerly a town judge.

LaGrange, though, said his mind was “90 percent decided.”

“It’s right there in the paperwork,” he said. “There is a history with Beth and attendance. She was given fair warning months ahead of time. She knows the law –– she endorsed it. What else were we supposed to do?”

Dolin said Stewart is entitled to an attorney and the public hearing. He said he would reserve making a decision until she had been given a chance to speak for herself at the upcoming meeting being held at 6:30 p.m., at the town hall, on March 28. However, Dolin may be unable to hear her defense. Stewart said she might not attend the hearing due to a family conflict.

— By Tyler Murphy

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