COPAKE–The former Copake Police Department is just a memory and cannot be resurrected, but a new local police department could be created, according to new Town Attorney Ken Dow.
Most of the Town Board members are new too, but they face an old dilemma: What to do about the Copake Police Department–even though the police force was dissolved by local law after voters decided by a four-vote margin that they no longer wanted a local department. The referendum was on November 8 election ballot.
The issue came up as newly-elected Copake Supervisor Jeff Nayer presided over his first regular monthly Town Board meeting January 12.
The standing-room only crowd that packed the meeting room wasn’t a welcome wagon for Mr. Nayer; people came to talk or learn about the police force, which is now out of business.
Copake Lake resident Lindsay LeBrecht, speaking for a grassroots effort to have the Town Board reconsider the department’s fate, told the new board that the original purpose of the referendum, “to get a flavor” for what the people of Copake wanted, was not accomplished. “A four-vote difference doesn’t give a true picture,” she said.
Members of four different political parties then presented the board with copies of a petition signed by 620 people seeking a do-over vote.
The question on the November ballot asked: “Shall the Town of Copake be authorized to dissolve the Copake Police Department?” The choices were, “Yes, Dissolve the Department” or “No, Retain the Department.” Ten percent of the 1,149 voters who cast a ballot did not mark the referendum question, which appeared on the back of the ballot.
The “under-voting” or “voting abnormality,” Ms. LeBrecht said, was because some voters did not know the question even existed on the back of the ballot.
She also contended that the original petition, which precipitated the ballot question, was not validated as having been signed by registered Copake voters and the new law ending the police force did not undergo the required State Environmental Quality Review before it was enacted.
Her group is also considering whether to ask a state court to overturn the Local Law on the grounds that there were procedural flaws which caused the vote to be “mismanaged” and illegally presented, said Ms. LeBrecht. She told The Columbia Paper Wednesday that five pages with signatures “went missing” from one or more of the places where the new petitions were available for signing.
Community Rescue Squad Operations Manager David Jensen read a letter into the record about effects the loss of the Police Department is having that may not have been considered prior to the November vote.
He said that police ensure that emergency scenes are safe for rescue squad personnel, obtain information about patients and sometimes drive the ambulance to a landing zone so the squad members can concentrate on providing life saving care to a patient. On many occasions Copake Police arrived before rescue squad personnel and provided care, such as chest compressions for cardiac arrest victims, he said.
Harvey Weber also spoke in favor of police saying they quickly found a missing youngster, checked on the elderly in the wake of the October ice storm and protect people in the Town Court.
Later in the meeting, newly-appointed Town Attorney Ken Dow said the law dissolving the Police Department is in effect and passage of that law carries with it the presumption that the law was properly enacted. He said that while any law is subject to a legal challenge, “the board can’t go backwards and judge its behavior like a court would.”
Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia, a member of the board who voted to pass the local law to disband the police, said she was “deeply troubled” that the referendum vote had ended in a virtual tie and said the previous board “let you down last year. I’m sorry; I do not feel the right thing was done.”
She asked Mr. Dow if anything can be done to address the situation as it stands now.
Mr. Dow said that the board can establish a new police department.
Ms. Gabaccia said, “It does not make sense to throw out the Police Department cavalierly.”
New Councilwoman Kelly Miller-Simmons wondered whether the people who voted against the department didn’t want it at all or didn’t want it the way it was.
New Councilwoman Susan Winchell-Sweeney said she believed there were voters who were not well informed and no analysis had been performed to find a better way of doing things. She said she would be willing to look at the possibility of a study to determine the needs of the community.
“The democratic process is the democratic process. If I lost by four votes I would not be the supervisor. The Police Department is done as of now,” said Mr. Nayer.
But Ms. Gabaccia pushed for re-instatement of the police, saying, “We should start where we left off, then address each side of the equation.”
Former Police Chief Rob Lopez said the police are working on closing out old cases and are not patrolling or investigating any new crimes.
Former Police Commissioner Jan Near wanted to know whether the police are still covered under the town’s insurance, noting that dissolving the department is not a matter of “just locking the door.”
Copake resident Diana Jamieson noted that it was not 50% of the population that voted against the police, just 50% of those who voted.
Copake resident Stosh Gansowski said that there were also voters who did not vote on the positions of judge, town council and supervisor and therefore by earlier mentioned logic, maybe the whole election should be a do-over.
Copake resident John Belfonte along with several others said, voters have rights and his concern was that he voted for something and he wanted it to count.
In a phone interview Wednesday Supervisor Nayer said there is $70,000 in the current town budget to cover expenses like rent, until the Police Department can be completely dissolved. Last year’s police budget was $106,000.
In the end, the board decided to set a special meeting date to hash out what to do about the police, though as of press time Wednesday afternoon that special meeting date and time had not been set.
Councilman Bob Sacks, who was supposed to attend the meeting via Skype from Las Vegas, Nevada did not do so because a public notice was not properly posted in a Las Vegas newspaper.