Martin Wilbur | Jan 28, 2013 |
The North Castle Town Board voted to end the municipality’s membership in the Association of Towns last week because the organization’s new executive director is a plaintiff in litigation against the town to reinstate health benefits.
In a 3-2 vote on Jan. 23, Supervisor Howard Arden and council members Diane DiDonato-Roth and John Cronin refused to support the town’s continued involvement with the group because former Councilman Gerald Geist is one of about 20 people who are suing North Castle.
The suit stems from a decision last summer by the town board to revise the town’s compensation and benefits package. The changes, approved by the same 3-2 margin, include requiring retired workers to contribute to their health benefits for the first time and elimination of lifetime health benefits for part-time elected officials who served at least 10 years. Geist served as councilman from 1986 through 2009.
Arden acknowledged the move is symbolic rather than to save the $1,650 in annual dues, but that his stance was a matter of principle.
“I have a problem in principle with spending membership dues to an organization that’s directly involved with suing the town,” Arden said. “I think it’s a conflict of interest and I have an issue with it.”
Geist, an attorney, was elevated from assistant executive director to the Association of Town’s top post in October. He did not respond to phone messages last week.
The organization was established in 1933 and describes on its website its mission as obtaining greater economy and efficiency for its members. It also provides various services, such as training programs, technical assistance and legal services for municipal employees across the state, and lobbies for legislation that would be beneficial for towns.
Arden said Geist is one of three town board members who saw their lifetime benefits eliminated and who is guilty of “generational theft.” He said the town had spent $260,000 on health coverage for Geist since he started serving the town.
“How can I spend taxpayer dollars to join an organization that is violating their very own constitution and mission statement?” Arden explained before the vote. “How can we support an organization that is indirectly suing the town?”
He said North Castle has already spent close to $15,000 defending itself against the suit.
However, the board’s minority, councilmen Michael Schiliro and Stephen D’Angelo, lambasted the move, saying that Geist’s decision to be part of the litigation has nothing to do with the Association of Towns. Even if Geist withdrew his name or was never involved, the town would be spending the same money in legal fees.
Schiliro said many of the town employees, particularly department heads, have benefitted from the seminars and professional advice they receive from the organization.
“I’m shocked, I’m absolutely stunned that we’re going to sever our relationship because of something completely unconnected to what the association provides,” Schiliro said.
But DiDonato-Roth said the board’s majority is taking a much-needed principled stand against the type of action that is hurting the town financially. She also disputed Schiliro’s claim that the town’s membership and Geist’s participation in the suit are unconnected, saying the organization’s leaders should be protecting, not suing, the town.
“I believe you have to take a stand in what you believe in and what you think is right,” DiDonato-Roth said. “I think (for) a former town board member to be suing the town that he worked in as an elected official, I think that’s inappropriate. I think that it was unnecessary. I think for us to go into an association that has now put someone who is suing the town for something that I feel he was not entitled to as their executive director is improper.”
Town Clerk Anne Curran said virtually all other towns in Westchester are Association of Towns members. She said she contacts the organization monthly as a resource, sometimes relying on advice from its legal department. Other department heads have also used its services.
“It would be a real shame for the sake of a very small annual membership to not have accessibility to that type of professional service,” Curran said.
Town employees could still attend seminars at the nonmembership rate, which is about $25 higher, Cronin said. As a town board member for the past three years, the organization has had “zero value” for him, he said.
Last week, the board delayed sending a letter to the Association of Towns to inform the organization of its decision following a dispute between the board’s two factions. An attorney for Keane & Beane of White Plains, a law firm that helps represent the town, had drawn up a letter outlining its reasons for leaving the organization, but officials agreed to inquire whether the language in the correspondence could hurt the town in the suit.
Filed Under: The Examiner