COPAKE–It may be December, but that peaceful Christmas spirit has not yet arrived at Town Hall.
Echoes of the recent contentious election season erupted at the December 12 Town Board meeting during a public hearing on proposed Local Law #3 of 2009, which would abolish the position of full-time court clerk and create the position of part-time court clerk. The new law would negate Local Law #1, approved by the board February 12, which created the full-time court clerk position. But the proposed law may have legal problems of its own, and the Town Board will is now seeking the help of a state judge to bring peace to the Land of Rural Charm.
As was the case earlier this year, town Supervisor Reggie Crowley is behind the move to abolish the full-time court clerk position. And once again he and his opponents argued over the position and the reasons for it.
Democratic Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia told The Columbia Paper December 14, that doing away with the full-time court clerk position was mentioned in passing by the supervisor during a budget workshop this fall. Then she found a notice in her mailbox about a week ago alerting her that a public hearing on a local law to abolish the position would take place just before the December 12 board meeting.
Ms. Gabaccia said there is enough money in the 2010 budget–$22,000–to fund the full-time court clerk position. The intention of the law adopted in February was that the town would have one full-time court clerk to serve both town justices and one part-time court clerk to fill-in when the full-time clerk was away.
But in practice it seems both judges want a clerk of their own. So the full-time court clerk, Margaret Hosier, has been primarily serving Justice Brian Herman, a Democrat re-elected in November. Justice John Spencer, a Republican, has been regularly using the services of part-time clerk Janet Glover, even when Ms. Hosier is available.
The Town Board has limited authority in the matter; it can set the court budget, but it cannot tell the justices whom to hire.
Speaking at the public hearing, Morris Ordover, town Democratic Club president, told board members that they were rushing to judgment and that keeping the full-time clerk would not increase the budget. Though Mr. Crowley had vowed that “no one would lose a job because of the budget,” Ms. Hosier, a Democrat, will be losing her full-time job and her health insurance benefits if the new law is adopted, said Mr. Ordover. He said the board will have to hire three part-time people to put in the same number of hours (30) that Ms. Hosier works weekly. “You’ll be creating a monster,” he said.
Rosanne Aulino, a Democratic Committee member, said the town court needs to operate with efficiency and professionalism with a full-time dedicated court clerk. She said that doing away with the full-time court clerk will “have an adverse effect on the administration of justice” and called the proposed new law “politically motivated.”
Resident Howard Blue said he could support the elimination of the full-time clerk position as long as both town justices also supported it.
Supervisor Crowley said he spoke to both judges, one supported the new law, the other did not. He said Judge Spencer provided him with a “read out” of the caseload for this year, which is down 40% from last year.
Republican Councilman Daniel Tompkins, who supported keeping Ms. Hosier full-time earlier in the year, said at the meeting, “It doesn’t make sense to fund one part-time and one full-time clerk.” Judge Spencer’s clerk, Ms. Glover, has been with the court part-time for eight years, while Ms. Hosier has been at the job for just over two years, he said. “I believe in seniority,” said Mr. Tompkins, who added that the two town justices should have resolved the matter.
Judge Herman, who was visibly upset at the meeting, announced that despite Mr. Crowley’s assertion, the supervisor had never spoken to him about the issue. And the judge disputed the supervisor’s caseload statistic, saying the number of cases and defendants this year are down less than 10%, an amount he called “statistically insignificant.”
Judge Herman also criticized Mr. Crowley, a former town justice, for leaving cases unresolved when he left his post as justice. Judge Herman said he had to deal with those cases, including some that involved sex offenders. He said as a town justice, Mr. Crowley did “as little work as possible to get his paycheck.”
As for coming to an agreement with Judge Spencer about how the court clerk system would work, Judge Herman said he had conferred with Judge Spencer on a number of occasions, and Judge Spencer had assured him he would support Ms. Hosier as the full-time clerk. Then in public, Judge Spencer changed his position “180 degrees,” according to Judge Herman.
“I’m asking you not to allow this board to use politics to interfere” with the running of the court,” Judge Herman said.
Supervisor Crowley said that he “did not dump cases on” Judge Herman. He said the only cases unresolved when he resigned as town justice to run for supervisor were those from which he had recused himself because they involved a friend or someone he had worked with.
Councilwoman Gabaccia produced a letter addressed to Supervisor Crowley from David A. Dellehunt, special council to town and village courts in the Third Judicial District. On behalf of Third District Administrative Judge George B. Ceresia Jr., who is the supervising judge for towns and villages within the district. Mr. Dellehunt asked the Town Board to “refrain from taking any action” with regard to the full-time court position “until we have an opportunity to explore what avenues exist to meet the needs of the court.”
Ms. Gabaccia said after the meeting that both she and Judge Herman had spoken to Mr. Dellehunt about the impact that losing the full-time court clerk would have on the court’s ability to dispense justice and serve the public.
“Court Clerks that report to a single Justice cannot be hired or fired without the advice and consent of the Justice to whom they report,” Mr. Dellehunt wrote, adding, “Court Clerks that report to both Justices cannot be hired or fired without the advice and consent of both Justices.”
Ms. Gabaccia asked that the board and both town judges meet with Judge Ceresia to resolve the problem “and return the integrity to the court.”
The board agreed and asked Ms. Gabaccia to set up a mutually agreeable meeting time.