Regionalism proponent Kevin Gaughan chastised the West Seneca Town Board on Monday for scheduling an “upsizing vote that residents didn’t ask for” and is demanding board members meet him in a pair of public debates on the issue in the weeks leading up to next month’s general election.
Gaughan – who fought for the 2009 public vote that, by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio successfully downsized the board from five members to three – said the board’s recent call for a Nov. 6 referendum on the question is “unbecoming for elected servants.”
“Sadly, ever since voters demanded downsizing, your behavior has reflected, at best, a disdain for the wishes of town voters,” Gaughan said Monday in a letter to Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan and Councilmen Eugene P. Hart and John M. Rusinski. “You’ve whined, bickered and made endless excuses for purposeful failure …
“Worse,” the letter continued, “you’ve made no effort to adapt to three-member board governance, a system which exists in tens of thousands of towns throughout our nation.”
Hart and Rusinski said Monday they have no vested interest in the outcome of the voters’ decision but only acted to save taxpayers $10,000 or more by adding the proposition to the ballot at a time when residents were already headed out to vote. Each also shot down Gaughan’s request for a debate.
“How do you debate something you don’t have an opinion on one way or another?” Rusinski asked. “If we didn’t put this on the ballot in November, we were going to have to have a special election. That’s going to cost us money.”
Town Board members were referring to an effort by West Seneca resident Dan Warren, who was spearheading a petition drive to reconsider the downsizing.
Warren contacted the Town Board late last month after falling short of the required signatures to get the measure on the ballot by the required deadline for November but told them he couldn’t “waste the efforts of so many who gathered the signatures” by not pressing on to secure a vote on the issue.
Warren said he had collected about 700 of the 907 signatures needed by Sept. 7, the date the petition would have had to have been filed to make the general election deadline. Warren called Gaughan’s claim that he couldn’t amass the requisite number of signatures “nonsense.”
“Looking back, I probably should have started the process sooner than I did,” said Warren, explaining he was pleased the Town Board agreed with his suggestion to pass the ballot resolution as a cost-savings measure.
Warren also thinks Gaughan is misled by the three-member board concept.
“Every legislative body less than five, you’re running into problems. With the Open Meetings Law, they’re not as free in communications with one another as with a five-member board,” Warren said. He said he’s seen efficiency drop off with fewer members. “Now, they’re bogged down doing day-to-day things when we need long-term things done, like a new Master Plan.”
“One way or another, there’s going to be a vote,” Hart said of the citizen petition. “The only reason we decided to go ahead with this is so we don’t have to spend money on a special election.”
Rusinski added that Gaughan ought to just let West Seneca decide how it wants to govern itself without interference.
“It’s funny, his website is ‘letpeopledecide.org,’ [and] that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Rusinski said.
That’s not the way Gaughan sees it, however. He believes there are too many layers of government and too many politicians who wish to follow in the same political model designed to make themselves “look like they’re indispensable.”
Hart, who said he supports the decision of voters, whatever it is, suggested Gaughan consider trying to change the state Open Meetings Law, which forbids public officials from discussing business outside of a public forum when there’s a quorum present. On a three-member board, that’s just two people.
“That’s the biggest problem with the three-member board,” said Hart. “It makes the town attorney the most powerful man in town.”
Not if it was done the right way, Gaughan counters.
“If West Seneca politicians dedicated the same energy to citizen participation as they have toward protecting themselves, we’d have a more vibrant town,” said Gaughan, noting that, in most other areas of the country, his research finds local politicians rely on “voluntary citizens committees” to handle a lot of responsibilities in the town that board members say occupy their time and slow down their work.
“The idea our public servants cannot discuss our business outside of our presence is a good thing,” Gaughan said of the Open Meetings Law.
He encouraged West Seneca’s elected officials to “work harder, do more with less and adapt,” like “every other Western New Yorker has had to do” in these challenging economic times.
Gaughan disputed claims that the amount saved by the downsizing was negligible in the town budget. He said adding West Seneca’s “second-highest paid” Town Board member salary of more than $22,000 to fringe benefits like health care and pension saves taxpayers upwards of $90,000 annually.<INLINENOTE>“That’s [almost] a million dollars each decade,” said Gaughan, explaining that “legacy costs” for health care and pensions in 2009 to 27 former board members amounted to $1.2 million annually. There are currently 32 former board members, Gaughan pointed out, adding he’s been unable to get updated figures.
“The Town Board is falsely creating a problem that doesn’t exist to rationalize their attempt to thwart the clear will of West Seneca’s residents in 2009,” Gaughan said. “No West Seneca town resident asked for this vote. This referendum was initiated by politicians looking to add to their ranks and cost taxpayers more. Period.”</INLINENOTE>