COPAKE—Members of non-elected boards will not have to be taught how to behave appropriately at public meetings.
At its August 8 meeting, the Town Board voted three-to-two not to require training on how to deal with the public in a respectful manner.
The Town Board discussion about this behavior or professionalism training began back in February after the Copake Board of Ethics issued a January opinion on two complaint letters it received from Copake citizens expressing concerns about how members of non-elected boards behaved at public meetings.
The specific complaints and offenders were never identified, but the letters were filed following the months of controversy surrounding the Berkshire Mountain Club at the Catamount Ski Area project. The project was under consideration by the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special permit late last year.
The letter writers claimed they witnessed behaviors by board members which created the “appearance of partiality, inappropriate practice and disrespect for members of the public attending the meetings.” They further alleged that “unseemly comments” were made during the meetings.
The Ethics Board reviewed, deliberated and decided the complaints were “insufficient to warrant an investigation” and therefore made no finding of any violation.
But the Ethics Board quoted from the town’s Code of Ethics, which says that “a high degree of moral conduct” is necessary so public confidence is maintained in local government. To that end, the Ethics Board recommended “that training should be provided to all members of non-elected boards… on appropriate methods for interacting with the public professionally, respectfully and without appearance of partiality.”
During the Town Board’s initial discussion in February, Supervisor Jeff Nayer said sometimes board members “let emotions get the best of them.”
Councilwoman Susan Winchell-Sweeney said, “People are teachable at any age.” The board “needs to establish expectations. Training and education does help.”
Since then, Councilwomen Jeanne Mettler and Winchell-Sweeney have been reporting monthly to the Town Board about their communications with various parties, including the Association of Towns and Town Attorney Ken Dow, about how, where and when this training could be provided in-house.
At the August meeting Councilwoman Mettler said three possible dates in October had been identified for the training. She said the training recommended by the Ethics Board could be a segment of the annual four-hour training required by the state for planning and zoning board members to be reappointed. She suggested that the half-hour segment on interaction with the public, taught by the town’s own Ethics Board, should be videotaped, so that anyone not able to make the session could watch it at his or her leisure.
She said the state has given the town the okay to provide training as long as the Town Board approves it and the town invites surrounding towns to participate.
Ms. Mettler said the Town Board should make the training mandatory, stressing that it is not meant to be punitive but is a statement by the town that “we want to promote good feelings, relations between the public and its boards.” She said residents most frequently interact with the Planning and Zoning boards when they want to make some change involving their property. Even if a board does not approve the change, she said, at least residents should feel they were heard and treated with respect.
Supervisor Nayer said he did not support making the suggested training mandatory. He said the town still has openings on some appointed boards and has consistent problems trying to get people to serve. “You are punishing everyone for the mistakes of one or two people. You are not going to change peoples’ nature.”
He went on to say that the Ethics Board has no training in how to teach this subject. He said the Town Board should attend the interviews of potential board appointees, ask questions and handle it when appointments are made.
Councilwoman Kelly Miller-Simmons said that as it stands now, non-elected board members can choose their training, “It’s nice to have that option,” which would not happen if the training is required.
“It’s not punitive, it’s education,” said Ms. Mettler, adding “We are the head of town government.”
Councilwoman Winchell-Sweeney said people used to flock to Town Board meetings because they were “raucous and unprofessional, better than anything on scripted television. Now our meetings are not entertaining—the room is empty.”
Councilwoman Terry Sullivan said she is “a huge education person” but wants to see what the training will address before she approves it.
During a roll call vote on Ms. Mettler’s motion to make the Ethics Board-recommended training mandatory and video tape it, Mr. Nayer, Ms. Miller-Simmons and Ms. Sullivan voted no; Ms. Mettler and Ms. Winchell Sweeney voted yes.
In other business, the board:
- Heard from NYSEG that it completed an inventory of town street lights and the number of lights the town is billed for is accurate. In May a report by Councilwomen Mettler and Winchell-Sweeney called into question the need for lighting districts and whether the town was being billed for lights that no longer exist
- Heard from Planning Board Chair Bob Haight, who wanted to know if it is legal for members of other boards to voice opinions at Planning Board meetings. Town Attorney Dow said it is perfectly okay for town officials to give their opinions on matters and in fact they are usually “up on things and their input is valuable.” Mr. Nayer asserted his right to freedom of speech as a private citizen and said he couldn’t help it if some board members did not want to hear his opinion.
The next Town Board meeting is Thursday, September 10, starting with a public hearing on a new littering law at 6:45 p.m.
To contact Diane Valden email