COPAKE–The Town Board created the position of citizen ombudsman to help residents get their issues addressed without influence from outside or political interests.
Now it appears that the ombudsman, if the town had one, could use the aid of an ombudsman to get an ombudsman appointed.
The town policy manual requires the Town Board to appoint a citizen ombudsman. But in December the board publicly heard several complaints about alleged actions and attitudes of now former ombudsman Karen Hallenbeck. Then at the January organization meeting, the board postponed the annual appointment of an ombudsman and at the February 11 meeting the board became deadlocked, not only over whom to appoint, but whether the town needs an ombudsman at all.
Two candidates applied for the job–Ms. Hallenbeck, who was appointed last year, and the Reverend John Thompson, rector at the Church of St. John in the Wilderness in Copake Falls.
At the February meeting, Harvey Weber presented the board with a petition bearing the signatures of 66 residents in support of Ms. Hallenbeck’s reappointment.
The petition defended Ms. Hallenbeck against the December complaints, saying she “was attacked by a few disgruntled scripted people…” who “have banned together to make her seem inadequate for the job.”
When the ombudsmen topic came up for action later in the meeting, Town Supervisor Reggie Crowley immediately recused himself from the discussion, because Reverend Thompson is his minister.
Councilman Bob Sacks introduced a motion to appoint Reverend Thompson to the post. Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia seconded the motion.
Councilman Dan Tompkins called Reverend Thompson “a fine, good man” but said he could not support him for the position out of concern for “positive neutrality,” which he said is based on the assumption that church and state have sovereignty over their respective domains.
In further explaining his position, Councilman Tompkins said he believed the appointment of the minister may be “violating the civil rights” of citizens who do not share the same religious beliefs.
“Is someone from another religious denomination going to want to speak to him?” asked Councilman Tompkins, posing the hypothetical circumstance that a person of a different faith needed the assistance of the ombudsman.
Councilman Sacks pointed out that the board has no right to ask applicants what their religious beliefs are, that the post “is not a religious job” and that Rev. Thompson is trained in conflict resolution, an asset to the position.
Councilman Tompkins then spoke non-specifically about a person being “singled out” and having their “credibility destroyed.” He also mentioned his desire “not to see that happen” to Rev. Thompson.
Councilwoman Gabaccia said it is the minister’s decision whether to expose himself to that possibility.
In applying for the job, Rev. Thompson indicates that he accepts that responsibility, said Councilman Sacks.
Finally, Councilman Tompkins said he could not support either candidate and said he does not know whether the town even needs an ombudsman. He said people should be able to “approach and trust” their public officials with the issues they want addressed.
Councilman Walt Kiernan said he agreed with Councilman Tompkins and could not support either candidate.
Councilwoman Gabaccia asked Town Attorney Tal Rappleyea to look into whether the town was opening itself to a lawsuit by rejecting an applicant on the basis of religion.
Councilmen Tompkins and Kiernan voted not to appoint Rev. Thompson, and Councilman Sacks and Councilwoman Gabaccia voted in favor.
Ms. Hallenbeck then announced that she had decided to decline the position if it was offered to her.
Supervisor Crowley suggested that the board look at amending the town’s ombudsman policy to say the town board “may” appoint an ombudsman instead of “shall.”
Councilman Tompkins said the Town Board was remiss in not giving the ombudsman any guidelines in the policy, adding the post “was set up for failure.”