Ancram board asks: Is it legal yet?

ANCRAM—Despite being advised by two attorneys that leasing the Mathews’ property for a highway garage was illegal, a majority of Town Board members seemed ready to sign on the dotted line last week.
But in an evening rife with turnarounds, by the end of the November 12 special meeting they had changed their minds.
The series of plot twists began with the public notice about the special Town Board meeting, which was posted at the Town Hall. It stated the purpose of the meeting was “to allow open discussion on leasing the Mathews’ paintball facility located on Roche Lane … as a highway garage…”
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people eager to engage in the discussion showed up, extra chairs were hauled in, the crowd was buzzing.
Then Town Supervisor Thomas R. Dias stood up and said the meeting was called so board members could discuss the matter and make a decision. “There will be no opportunity for public discussion,” said the supervisor, adding, “we just want to do what’s legal.”
It turned out that in the two days prior to the special meeting Mr. Dias and the board had received letters from two attorneys, both of whom detailed why a lease agreement for use of the Mathews’ property was illegal. The letters came from Town Attorney Jason Shaw and John Lyons, the attorney representing the Ancram Concerned Citizens, a group of local residents who don’t want the highway garage relocated to Mr. Mathews’ paintball facility on Roche Lane.
So it wasn’t clear what the board had to make a decision about.
Sounding irritated, Mr. Dias said there had been some “disconnect” between him and Attorney Shaw and consequently Mr. Shaw had not provided him with either the language for a resolution that the board could consider or a State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) short form. Both are necessary before the board could commit to the lease agreement.
Mr. Shaw gave the crowd his rendition of the conversation with the supervisor, saying Mr. Dias had asked him to provide a resolution to go forward with the lease agreement only if, after having reviewed the law, Mr. Shaw found it advisable.
But Mr. Shaw said he believed it was “premature for the board to adopt a resolution allowing the supervisor” to sign a lease agreement with Mr. Mathews for a number of reasons, noting in particular his question about where the money would come from to pay for it.
Mr. Shaw suggested that the board should discuss the matter in executive session because parties “on the other side of the lease” may be present and the town’s strategy concerning the lease was “none of their business.”  Councilman John MacArthur made a motion that the board go into executive session. Councilwoman Donna Hoyt suggested that Art Bassin, Chris Thomas and Madeleine Israel, join the board in the closed-door-session since each them might soon be serving on the board once the absentee ballots from this month’s election are counted.
But Councilman James Miller objected to the move into executive session saying, “You call this open government?”  And a significant number of audience members voiced their opposition to the prospect of being excluded from the discussion when Mr. Dias asked who opposed the executive-session motion.
Mr. Dias explained that the lease or sale of real property was a legitimate reason for executive session and scolded Mr. Miller saying, “Don’t be ignorant of the law.”
When the board departed the main meeting room for their closed-door discussion, Mike Citrin, arguably the most verbal opponent of the proposed move to the Mathews’ property, read aloud Mr. Shaw’s letter to the board.
Of particular interest was Mr. Shaw statement that he learned of this special meeting from Robert Trotta, Mr. Mathews’ attorney, who hand delivered a copy of the proposed lease agreement November 9.
Mr. Shaw noted that Ancram public officials had been having “private conversations with Mr. Mathews about this lease arrangement” and said those officials “are obligated to fully disclose the substance of the conversations and to represent to the town that nothing was said or promised that would compromise their fiduciary obligations to the town.”   
Mr. Shaw’s letter also raised questions about the proposed lease, describing it as, “analogous to a ‘rent to own’ arrangement offered by some stores to consumers who have neither the cash nor the credit to buy a product outright.”
He said that under Mr. Mathews’ proposal, each dollar the town pays as rent loses 30% of its value toward the purchase price. He said the town’s own appraisal of the Mathews’ property “is significantly lower than the option purchase price.”
Mr. Lyons noted in his letter that the monthly rent–$6,000—for the Mathews’ site is triple the fair market value. For the town to enter into a lease at above market rates “would constitute an illegal act and would render the lease agreement void.” He also said such an arrangement might violate the state constitution.
Mr. Shaw, in his letter, warned the board it would be unlawful to enter into the proposed lease because the board had not followed the steps necessary for the purchase of the Mathews property, which include specifying construction and remodeling costs that must be allocated in the 2010 budget and setting a permissive referendum to allow voters the chance to approve or disapprove the expenditure.
While the board remained secluded, members of the public in the main meeting room talked about the agreed-upon need for an improved highway garage facility.
Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals Clerk Suzanne Bressler made a bowl of popcorn, which was shared by the crowd. Everyone seemed to agree that rather than be behind closed doors, the board should be in the main meeting room listening to residents’ concerns.
When the board emerged from executive session after about a half hour, Supervisor Dias announced that the board had agreed not to accept Mr. Mathews’ present offer, to explore further negotiations for a lease on the property, to obtain cost information related to upgrading the various systems needed for the town’s use of the facility and to explore any and all other options for a town highway garage.  
The Town Board met again, November 19.
To contact Diane Valden email

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