Organizational meeting features multiple contested votes

January 08, 2020

The new Town Board in West Seneca passed more than 50 measures in Friday night’s organizational meeting. Just a handful of them featured disagreements or contested votes, but those that did were not all split along party lines.

The first agenda item – regarding hiring a town attorney to a two-year term – was cause for discussion right away. Supervisor Gary Dickson said that he hoped to replace current attorney Tina Hawthorne with someone who was more experienced in municipal law, as Hawthorne’s line of work is family law.

He said he found two candidates who impressed him, but neither met residency requirements. Additionally, it became clear to Dickson that the board intended to keep Hawthorne. He said he spoke to her about remaining impartial politically. According to the Erie County Board of Elections website, Hawthorne made political contributions to multiple Democratic candidates for town board while serving as town attorney in 2019.

“I am positive that Ms. Hawthorne is a capable family law attorney,” Dickson said. “I was hoping that we could find someone with more experience in municipal law. I did find one or two candidates. It’s not easy to find someone so qualified who lives in West Seneca. The candidates that I found did not live in West Seneca but had years of municipal experience.

“In the course of discussions, it was clear that the majority of the board did not agree with me. Ms. Hawthorne and I have had discussions about my feelings about the impartiality of the town attorney and how I would hope the town attorney is not a participant in partisan campaigns and would represent the entire board faithfully. I’m sure that she would.”

Ultimately, Hawthorne was retained by a 3-2 vote. Councilman Jeff Piekarec also did not vote to retain her.

“I share many of Gary’s concerns, not all of them identically,” Piekarec said. “One point I would like to add is that the voters voted for change. To keep the same attorney as the past town board seems like a mistake to me. I will be voting against the appointment.”

Another disagreement occurred later in the meeting when the topic arose of health care for the supervisor position. The agenda item would grant health insurance benefits to department heads, elected or appointed officials, and other full-time employees not covered by the town’s blue collar and white collar contracts.

In the recent past, the supervisor was not included in the resolution. Dickson stated that previous supervisor Sheila Meegan took a stipend in lieu of health insurance for her first two years in office and was covered by the insurance of her husband, a town employee.

However, councilmen Bill Hanley and Bill Bauer did not agree that the supervisor should be included in the motion, as that cost of more than $25,000 per year would not be budgeted for.

“The supervisor’s position did not have health care benefits for the past eight years,” Bauer said. “The approved budget for 2020 does not have finances allocated for this additional health care inclusion. The cost of this additional health care benefit to the Town of West Seneca would be over $25,000 per year or a wage compensation increase to the supervisor of over 38% two days into his term of office.”

Joe Cantafio disagreed with his fellow Democratic councilmen, stating that he believes that it’s important for all full-time employees to have health care. Piekarec agreed with Dickson and Cantafio, allowing the measure to pass.

“The position is full-time,” Piekarec said. “While I do not like adding this, ultimately if we’re going to attract people to the office, I believe we’re going to have to give them benefits.”

Dickson, a retired FBI agent, receives federal health care benefits. He said at Monday’s regular town board meeting that he will not be taking the town’s benefits or a stipend, but that he supported the measure because he believes all of the town’s full-time employees should be treated the same.

Also in the meeting, the issue of a stipend for new Highway Superintendent Brian Adams came up. Generally, the highway superintendent is also the appointed dog control officer for the town, receiving a stipend of $7,000. While campaigning, Adams promised not to take the stipend. When the time came to vote on the agenda item Friday, Piekarec made a motion to pay Adams just $1 for the stipend.

Dickson, however, did not agree with the motion. He noted that after Adams initially made the promise, the 2020 budget was released, cutting the pay of highway superintendent by more than $10,000.

“It’s true that the highway superintendent has requested that he not receive the stipend,” Dickson said. However, it’s my personal opinion that this promise, which he continues to adhere to, was taken during the campaign. However, as we learned later in the campaign, his salary was cut by more than $10,000. I personally think the highway superintendent should make more than the straight salary of $80,000. The dog control would make it $87,000. My recommendation is that we keep it. Although, I will recognize that he has asked not to receive it.”
Hanley and Cantafio agreed with Dickson, approving Adams for the $7,000 stipend, which had been budgeted for. Adams released a statement to the press the following day, stating that while he had informed the board ahead of time of his wishes to receive a $1 stipend, he did not feel comfortable interjecting during a live motion on which he was not eligible to vote. He said that the board will be looking at the possibility of removing the stipend from future budgets.

“In the end, I believe the board members were acting altruistically and simply using this as an opportunity to rectify a large salary reduction made to my position, which was revealed only after campaigning had begun,” Adams said. “I did not anticipate this voting outcome, and per my request, the board will be exploring ways to rectify this issue and/or remove the stipend from future budgets.”

The final of 60 resolutions on Friday’s agenda was meant to adopt a set of rules of order for town board meetings. It included 14 rules that would govern how town meetings would be run. While the board seemed to agree with the idea, there were some rules that some thought should not be included. Hanley believes that the way the 14th rule is written takes away the ability for continuous dialogue between residents and the board. Meanwhile, the 12th rule would disallow residents from booing or clapping during meetings.

Hanley and Piekarec both shared their belief that this could be viewed as violating the First Amendment. Dickson said that he was open to changing the language somewhat, but noted that the rules are based on the Model Rules of Order from the Association of Towns of New York. The issue was ultimately tabled.