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New Hamburg Town Board struggles to find common ground

HAMBURG — On display at the Hamburg Town Board’s first meeting of the year were several examples of the new board’s inability to reach a decision that satisfied both the members of the board and the residents in attendance.

Among the more than 60 resolutions during the town’s reorganizational meeting held Jan. 13, several ended up being tabled, while others, though they passed, failed to gain unanimous consent. In certain instances, one member abstained from voting altogether.

One resident described the meeting as “a circus.” Blasdell Deputy Mayor Lou McDonald called it a “three-person lesson in uncivilized civics, adding, “I was amazed at the bitter infighting over non-paying assignments; I do not know the back stories, but it seemed like a lot of time and energy was being spent trying to include and exclude certain people from assignments.”

A source of controversy came during a resolution in which where Board Member Cheryl Potter-Juda, appearing in her first town board meeting, made a resolution that the board “disaffirms and terminates” the contract of Michael Williams, chief of police.

The resolution read, “Be it further resolved that this contract is terminated effective immediately. However, it is our intent to continue to employ Chief Williams as the Hamburg chief of police as an at-will employee, while the terms of the new contract are negotiated. His salary shall be, in the interim, 3 percent higher than the highest paid employed command officer’s base salary.”

Supervisor Steven Walters pointed out “two glaring things,” saying, “The chief of police is a civil service position; it is not an at-will employee. Whether you want to designate the person at-will or not is irrelevant. Under civil service law, he is not considered an at-will employee. You do not have the rights to remove him as an at-will employee. No. 2, [in regard to salary] . . . what you don’t mention is what benefits he will receive.”

Board Member Michael Quinn said that Williams would have the same benefits he currently has, but Walters countered that, since the contract would be terminated, the benefits would not necessarily carry over.

When asked why the change was being made, Walters answered, “Because [the board members ] can, and because they don’t like the chief.” Quinn responded that Walters’s allegation was untrue.

“Supervisor Walters, please do not make statements regarding my comments or my personal opinions,” Potter Juda said, and cited “financial stability” and “taxes for the residents” as reasons for the decision.

Williams was in attendance and asked, “Why was I never, ever, ever contacted by [Potter-Juda] regarding this resolution? You have never had a personal conversation with me about the police department or anything I do or they do since the day you were elected.”

Potter-Juda initially responded that she had spoken with Williams, to which Williams responded, “You did not have personal conversations with me. Don’t sit up there and lie.” Potter-Juda then said that Quinn had had “several meetings” with Williams.

“Why did you not have the common courtesy to come in to a department head who has served this town faithfully for 34 years and at least have the common decency to talk to him and explain to him what your concerns were?” Williams asked.

“I did not [meet with you],” said Potter-Juda. “I cannot be at every single meeting. We did split some of them. I could not be at everyone’s beck and call for the past 13 days, so I did not meet with every single person.”

Quinn said that his reasoning was based on the case Gleason v. Village of Hamburg. “The reason that we do that is because we feel it’s our duty to the taxpayers that if somebody maybe paid a little bit more than the other people within the county or state, that we should definitely look into and take a stand and say that we should look at it and maybe lower the pay rate,” he said. “I don’t want to base it on anything Mr. Williams does within the police force.”

Attorney Walter Rooth III said, “You have the authority to [terminate the contract], but be careful, Mr. Quinn; don’t state [Gleason v. Village of Hamburg] as your reason. You would have every good reason or intention to do that. You may have public policy rationale for that. We haven’t heard that yet. But I think it would be wise to proceed with caution in this area.”

When asked about the benefits of the decision, Potter-Juda said, “[Quinn and I] ran with a clean slate ... to protect the residents of Hamburg and to cut taxes. We have a supervisor ... that is the highest paid in Erie County. We have a chief of police ... that is the highest paid chief of police in Erie County, and that is a fact. That is why this resolution was created, because we are trying to do what we ran on and what we promised to do for the town of Hamburg’s residents, which is to cut taxes and to stop the extra payments that are above and beyond.”

That resolution was eventually tabled, but it was not the only issue that divided the board.

Resolution 29, which was moved by Potter-Juda to approve Walters’s liaison appointments, was challenged by the supervisor on the grounds that the town does not have authority to approve or disapprove the supervisor’s appointments. When the board member called to table the resolution, Walters said, “There’s nothing to table. The supervisor has exclusive authority. There is no board review or board approval.” He deemed this “an improper resolution,” saying that New York state town law “controls.”

Walters said, “The town board is attempting to take authority from the supervisor.” No vote was called.

“I do not appreciate assigning me positions that I am not comfortable with,” Potter-Juda said.

When Quinn moved to terminate three contracts of Human Resources Consultants Brian Doyle and Mary Eisenhauer and Marketing Director Linda Rogers, Walters suggested having replacements in place, before cutting HR positions. The move, according to Quinn, was to “save money.”

Quinn said, regarding the new board itself, “There’s going to be some bumps in the road. Let us just get used to each other. Maybe we can get along.” The resolution passed 2-to-1, opposed by Walters.

Resolution 56 passed, despite Walters’ opposition as well; it created a fiscal stability committee “to provide the town board with reports and to advise relative to the town budget and financial matters.” Walters said that the resolution was made on an “incorrect premise,” adding that the town “has never exceeded budgeted amounts,” but has always been well below.

“It shows that the current members of the town board don’t have institutional knowledge of how the budget works and simply refuse to ask questions,” Walters said. “I reached out to them in November, but they did not want to discuss any of these matters as it relates to this meeting. It sets a bad tone for the town and is a complete misperception of what’s going on financially, in the town. The town accountant and the town auditor both stated that the town has never been in better shape. I’m disappointed with this. It should be removed.”

Quinn thanked Walters and said, “[Walters] is doing the best he can. A fresh set of eyes helps out. Getting the public involved always helps out. I don’t know all the budget stuff.” He added that there were some discrepancies with the budget. “We can all teach each other about the budget and do more for the people.”

After a vote took away a $2,500 stipend from Highway Superintendent Tom Best and attempted to give a $23,500 salary to former Assistant Police Chief Steven Mikac, would-be assistant superintendent of buildings and grounds, Potter-Juda said, in reference to the building and grounds department, “We are hoping that everyone can work together and get along.”

The audience laughed in response.
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