Why have the Chatham Town Board and Supervisor dismissed us?

By Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

This past April 5th, my father, Paul T. Veillette, passed away. I mention this not for sympathy, but because he was a powerful force on the importance of both common-sense zoning, and learning and respecting the history of our towns, and was also a long-time columnist for The Chatham Courier. In fact, he and my mother, Frances, were part of the original group of Chatham citizens who expressed the need for some form of reasonable land-use zoning back in the late 60s and early 70s. Another powerhouse was Judy Grunberg, a dear friend to our family and this entire town. She was like a sister to my mother. Judy also recently passed. It’s been a heartbreaking year for our little town.

On many sun-filled days in my childhood, I watched Judy and Paul Grunberg with my parents, huddled around a picnic table, passionately discussing local politics. How I wish I could ask my father for advice on the predicament Chatham is in today.

Before my father and Judy left this Earth, I promised them both that I would do everything in my power to stop this current Town Board from overreaching and forcing zoning onto us more fitting for Westchester than for our rural, farming community. I take that promise seriously.

For all who knew Dad and Judy, you know they were reasonable, intelligent, well-respected, generous, selfless, and unshakable. Those are qualities every public servant should have. How I wish those adjectives described our current Town Board.

At one Public Hearing last May, after months of attending Town Board meetings and pleading for changes to these proposed zoning laws, Judy stood strong and asked the Board, “I just want to know one thing. Are you listening to us?”

Now months later, it is crystal clear they were not.

In an effort to combat the lack of communication by the Town Board, many citizens now attend public meetings, and I personally film them via Facebook Live and actively post on social media. Something the Town Board could easily do themselves. But instead, they constantly direct people to the terribly inadequate Town website. I create websites as part of my job, and this is the worst site I have ever tried to navigate. Agendas are frequently not posted until an hour before the meeting starts, if at all. The minutes are absent from many meetings. Note: This is not the fault of the Town Clerk. Councilman Michael Richardson removed the website duties from her one night, in a fit, publicly humiliating the Clerk, who dutifully and respectfully serves our town. I’ve never witnessed such a disheartening public display of control and disrespect.

This “transparency” they speak of is lacking. Why aren’t they using the communication tools of the 21st century?

What’s most disturbing is the Town Board’s dismissal of the citizens. They are in bizarre denial that our voices matter. As if it never occurred to them that the almost 300 outraged people who showed up to the July 8th Tri-Village Firehouse zoning meeting, which is a record number by the way, are actual human beings with cares, jobs, financial worries, and a desire to have rights as property owners. We voted them in. Why wouldn’t we want to feel heard?

We long ago tired of Maria Lull and other Town Board members lamenting, “Where were you before? Why haven’t you joined committees?” Is there an expiration date on when a citizen can get involved? Are we supposed to come out of the womb and head straight to the Town Hall?

Yet this Town Board consistently slaps the citizens’ hands for not being involved sooner. Maybe it’s just us, but wouldn’t the more appropriate response be, “Welcome to the table! Thank you for wanting to participate. How can we work together to improve our zoning and town?”

After witnessing our outrage and submission of hundreds of zoning questions, Councilman Richardson finally declared a change of heart. He would no longer support the Board’s strategy of passing the law now and amending later. They decided to conduct Q&As with the citizens, with Councilman John Wapner promising these meetings would continue “until no more questions are asked or no one shows up.”

Bravo! The citizens showed up for every Q&A. We came with new questions each time, only able to ask a handful at a single session, with many more questions patiently waiting for the next Q&A. The Board identified over 90 issues as needing to be addressed. Over 90! Yet they were ready to pass this deficient law on June 20th.

The Q&As were productive, polite, and I’d even go as far as to say, they were fun. We enthusiastically worked together with the Town Board with great results.

Until the Q&As abruptly stopped.

What happened to Councilmen Richardson’s and Wapner’s promises? Why didn’t our Town Supervisor Maria Lull insist the Board keep their word? We were yet again dismissed.

And now, the Board has violated our trust once more. Just as they posted the “cleaned-up” red-lined version of the proposed zoning law on the town site, they simultaneously filed paperwork with the County Planning Board to review the proposed zoning laws, as is, which is a major step needed toward voting these laws in. The filing occurred on September 30th, yet the date Town Supervisor Maria Lull put on the signed document was October 2nd. How could that not make us suspicious of wrongdoing?

Most importantly, in taking this action, they violated Open Meeting Law. They are required by law to discuss issues like this in a public meeting. The potential of submitting the zoning law to the county was never put on any agenda, never listed in minutes, and not in the filming I do of every Board meeting. Therefore, this decision, and signing of the paperwork by our Town Supervisor Maria Lull, was done behind closed doors.

Again, that is a violation of Open Meeting Law.

If this was on the up-and-up, why was there zero mention of the intent to file, and also no mention of the completion of filing? They should have at least informed us at the October 3rd Board meeting.

Let’s make this clear, this was not an act of incompetence. This was a deliberate act of deception. Either the Town Board purposely acted in unison to do this, or Maria Lull acted on her own. Either way, it is the most disrespectful action this Board has taken to date. Just when you think they couldn’t hit a new low, they do.

I still hear and see Judy standing strong, asking, “Are you listening to us?” I am so deeply sorry, my dear Judy, they still are not.

Instead of listening, they immediately point fingers of blame at anyone who disagrees with them. My father told me, when you point one finger, four fingers are pointing back at you. The Board would be wise to remember that.

Dear Town Board, the blame for this zoning mess and divide in our community rests squarely on your shoulders. You choose to disrespect us instead of work with us. You could have kept doing Q&As. But instead, you chose to stop, distract, and do back-room meetings.

They further insulted us by not posting the County submission document under “Zoning,” instead burying it under “Government,” then under “Comprehensive Plan,” then further down at the bottom of the page. We only found it by accident.

I don’t care how many Letters to the Editor they and their friends write or how many back-patting mailers they send out, claiming “Truth Matters.” They have repeatedly betrayed our trust. The truth is, they will do it again. The first time you’re a victim; the second, a volunteer. I will not volunteer to support another four years of this disrespect.

My father and Judy may not walk among us today, but they will forever be a part of the heartbeat of our community. In fact, Judy told me many times that for the first time in her life, she would not be voting Democrat. How I wish she and my father had gotten the chance to vote on November 5th. How I wish they were still here to call out the Town Board for their gross lack of effective communication and their utter disregard for their citizens and Open Meeting Law.

They may not be here, but I am. I will not stop speaking up until we have new leadership who show Chatham citizens the respect we deserve. That leadership is Donal Collins, Vance Pitkin, and Abi Mesick.

Dear Fellow Chatham Citizens… We Need New Blood

On June 20, 2019 a town meeting was held at the East Chatham firehouse.  To begin the meeting, each Councilperson on the Chatham Town Board declared, individually, one by one, declared their wholehearted endorsement of the new zoning code, as it was then written, and their intention to vote yes to passing the code into law.  Following that event, a number of citizens read the proposed code and voiced numerous objections, which were published on the Chatham United for Common Sense Zoning website.

On July 8th, another town meeting was held at the Tri-Village fire house.  Several hundred citizens attended.  They were asked to write their “questions”/issues on note cards.  The board was obliged to read what the citizens had written.  Having read the cards, the town website published a list of 91 issues that deserved further legal scrutiny and warranted changing.  They then published another list of dozens of issues which perhaps did not require legal review required clarification.

The board frequently mentions the fact that they have spent years working on revising the Chatham zoning code.  Yet in roughly 3 weeks concerned residents of Chatham came up with 91 legal inaccuracies, anomalies and questionable policies that forced the board to review the entire document.  Several council members even stated that they wished the had had this input earlier.  

We realize that town boards frequently do not write these codes, but until July 8th, we did not fully realize that the board had not even read the code.  Members of the community read the code.  Those board members running for re-election characterize themselves as “experienced.”  Yet they were grossly unaware of the contents of the proposed zoning code they were fully ready to enact into law on June 20thThis is not “experience,” this is incompetence.

Donal Collins, Abi Mesick and Vance Pitkin have read the code.  They, and those of us who have been involved in the zoning debates, are not against zoning.  We believe in common sense zoning that does not seek to legislate every conceivable situation that might arise for years to come.  That is why we have a Zoning Board of Appeals- to review new situations on an individual basis. 

We want to preserve Chatham’s rural character and charm, and to prevent thoughtless development and that would degrade the quality of life here.  But we also want Chatham to participate in the 21st century; we want to ensure that our businesses keep their doors open; we want to make Chatham a desirable destination for visitors; and we want to protect property values by familiarizing newcomers to all that Chatham offers.

To this end, Chatham needs visitors- visitors who frequent restaurants, theaters, farm operations, who vacation here, who buy a home here, who send their children to school here, who create the diversity we value here. 

We need to see that the Chatham Town Board addresses the concerns of all of its residents, not merely the few who would prefer to see nothing change. 

Chatham needs to be a vital living town.  We need new blood on the town board who understand the community they serve.

From Open Public Involvement to Broken Promises

There are several people who run our Facebook page and website, but I wanted to share that this post is from me, Jeanne. I have gone to almost all of the Q&A and Town Board meetings, and tonight, at the August 28th Special Town Board meeting, I’m the one behind the camera. And yes, you occasionally hear me huff or puff. It’s hard not to, sometimes. But up until this week, I had been hopeful about this Q&A process, because I witnessed it working, firsthand. Then… things abruptly changed.

Most of the recording below (and also posted via Facebook Live) consists of the discussions by the board of possible changes to the zoning law (a law they were about to pass on June 20th, but are now clearly finding many faults within it). It’s important to watch the discussions. That’s why we film them—to show how the sausage gets made. You’ll see that when the Board chooses to listen to the public’s comments, and re-examine the document, good changes happen.

But I also suggest you fast forward to the Public Comment section at the end to witness the citizens’ frustration when the Board chose not to confirm continued scheduling of zoning Q&As with us, despite having previously promised they would keep having them… until all questions were asked and answered.

In fact, the Town Board’s promise was quoted in the Columbia Paper, in earlier Town Board meeting minutes, and in their own Democratic Party mailing that went out recently.

“We will meet until there is nothing left to meet about.”

John Wapner

I don’t believe for one second that the decision to not schedule another Q&A is unanimous by the Board. I do believe when John Wapner made the declaration above, he meant it. He offered that opportunity in good faith.

However, tonight, Maria Lull refused to promise more Q&As, and Michael Richardson said that he wasn’t saying there would be no more Q&As, but in the next breath he also stated that he was not going to promise that there would be more Q&As either.

“Let’s get the revised document together and see what happens…” was the theme.

I do understand the need to clean the document up and do a reset. It’s a mess. But why stop the progress of the Q&As and block the public involvement while you’re doing it? We’re capable of multitasking!

Another unkept promise was to put a red-line version of the new law vs. the existing law on the Town of Chatham website. Up until now, there has never been one presented to the public. We’ve only seen red-line versions from one draft to another. That is not what people need to see. For example, it would be extremely helpful for citizens to know when something is a mere carryover, as opposed to a new regulation.

Full transparency means you show the citizens how their current law compares to the law you would like to pass.

Let’s hope they do that. As soon as possible.

I’ll tell you what’s going to happen if the public feels locked out again… another Tri-Village Firehouse meeting, overflowing with 300 angry citizens… or more this time.

What baffles (and saddens) me the most is these Q&As were absolutely helpful to the board and to the citizens. People want to feel heard, and we mostly did. Were these perfect meetings? Of course not, but we at least got to have an open dialogue with two board members at a time, even if our opinions didn’t always make it back to the remaining three board members. It was better than nothing. The Board even referenced previous Q&A discussions in tonight’s workshop and admitted the Q&As were helpful in reaching agreement on changes. (Well, everyone except Maria).

They are clearly in a rush, but we don’t know why. There is quite literally no zoning emergency that Chatham is suffering from. None.

I won’t even go into how tone deaf it was to set up a Special Town Board meeting on the first night of the Columbia County Fair… the biggest family event of the year.

We’ve heard over and over how much time the board has put into these proposed laws, but the public’s commitment is equally important. Some have missed vacations, time with their kids before sending them off to college, taken days off from work to read the proposed zoning laws and do research, all to attend the barrage of meetings crammed into the past weeks. They are volunteering their time because of their love and commitment to Chatham.

In their recent Democratic mailing that supports the re-election of Maria Lull, it was stated this Board should be applauded for having over 40 meetings this year. I respectfully challenge that statement. The reason they have had so many meetings about this proposed zoning law is because they have chosen to take the control and duty away from the Zoning Board.

Do they not trust their own Zoning Board? Even if they do, they have certainly usurped their authority.

Town Boards creating zoning laws is not the standard in municipalities. Why? Because they are not zoning experts. Zoning Board members are required by NYS to take classes on zoning so that they can recommend appropriate potential laws, sometimes involving a Zoning Implementation Committee, then those draft laws go through a series of steps and reviews by multiple committees, finally ending up at the Board level for a vote, after a Public Hearing.

Maria Lull chose to task the Board with the minutia of going line by line. We can only assume this is because she wants more control over the law, and over the timeline. We don’t know though, because she rarely talks at the meetings.

That is not effective leadership.

Ironically, this decision to halt Q&As will actually waste time. The public participation has sped up changes to lightening speed!

So, let’s just give Ms. Lull a bone. Let’s say her involving the public in Q&As was strategic to make this go faster. Brava! But then why stop the Q&As?

They worked.

I can’t imagine the number of hours a Zoning Board would have had to endure to get to the quantity and quality of revisions made on this proposed law since early July. So much has changed for the better because of public involvement.

We are not slowing this down. We are speeding it up.

Which brings me to my next point… the Board is not just wasting time, they are also wasting money with their “take control” approach. Instead of using the free hive minds of a very intelligent public to assist, they are going to toss things back and forth to Nan Stolzenburg (the planner) and Jeff Lyons (the attorney), then back to a public hearing, then back to Nan and Jeff… more of your tax dollars lost.

How is that helpful for anyone?

I can say without reservation that I truly believe if they kept going with the Q&A approach, they would have succeeded in creating a better law, faster, and with much less money. Now? They are refusing to toss this back to the Zoning Board and also refusing to promise an open door to continued public involvement.

Please note, if you went to the Tri-Village Firehouse and wrote a question down on a card, do not assume it’s being considered. Two people in attendance submitted questions that were ignored after that firehouse meeting, yet when they came to the Q&As, their questions got answered. If this happened to two people, I assure you, it’s happened to more.

So, if we have no more Q&As to ask questions, how can we ever be sure our concerns will be addressed?

We can’t.

Mr. Richardson stated that part of the Board’s reluctance to continue Q&As is that they were starting to hear repetitive questions. Of course they were. Unless someone came to every single Q&A, they would have no idea what was asked because, again, no information was posted on their website.

Clear communication is not rocket science. We, Chatham United, are just a bunch of concerned citizens, yet we quickly created a website, Facebook, and Instagram that we update consistently and timely. It works. All they had to do is have someone live streaming the Q&A meetings online, like we do for the Board meetings, and everyone could have watched and potentially heard answers to a question they, too, might have had. (Note: The Town of Chatham Communication Committee has reestablished a Facebook page, so please follow it.)

We also know many people did not attend the Q&As because they were waiting to have their questions from the Tri-Village Firehouse meeting answered and posted on the Town website, as not to duplicate their questions at these meetings. Tonight, the Board held up a stack of papers with what they claim are “rhetorical” questions that are being addressed by the Board (any question starting with “Why…” was considered rhetorical). We appreciate the Boards efforts in answering them and look forward to those being posted, but they will most likely not be up for weeks.

It is with a heavy heart that I admit I no longer have faith at all in this process, and I have also lost faith in our Town Supervisor’s ability to keep her word. A person’s word matters, especially the word of someone we put into office.

If we can’t trust the word of our leader, what do we have? We certainly don’t have a healthy democracy… or a healthy town.

“If your actions don’t live up to your words, you have nothing to say.”

― DaShanne Stokes

Our actions matter, too. We can’t bellyache about these laws if we aren’t willing to be a part of the solution. We need to be active in solving the problem, not just gripe and moan on Facebook.

So, what can we do? We can keep working hard, keep making lists of questions, keep going to as many board meetings as possible, email questions and concerns to the Board, spread the word about upcoming Town Board meetings, and stay engaged.

Even if they never schedule another Q&A, our town deserves our dedication and commitment to its success. You deserve it! Please stay engaged!

If this unfortunate turn of events taught us anything, it’s that bad things happen when we don’t stay on top of our government.

Check our Facebook page, this website, and the Town of Chatham website and calendar for updates. VOTE FOR DONAL, VANCE, AND ABI ON NOVEMBER 5th.