Chappaqua resident and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton now isn’t the only public official whose use of e-mails has been scrutinized.
Yorktown Supervisor Michael Grace and his Republican running mates charged Councilman Vishnu Patel, who is looking to unseat Grace in November, improperly used town resources for political purposes by distributing an email on September 28 opposing the proposed relocation of the town’s highway garage to a list of addresses obtained from the Town Clerk’s Office.
“It is wholly improper for the town’s email lists to be used in furtherance of a political campaign. Absolutely taboo,” Grace remarked outside Yorktown Town Hall Thursday afternoon at a press conference called by the Yorktown Republican Committee with Patel and fellow Democratic Councilwoman Susan Siegel listening intently an arm’s length away.
“It doesn’t take a brilliant scientific mind to know right from wrong, does it?” Grace asserted in an apparent reference to Patel, a retired award-winning IBM scientist. “Vishnu Patel abused not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law, and residents deserve an apology for this abuse.”
Grace and his executive secretary, Mary Capoccia, who is running for town clerk, claimed they were barraged for several days with phone calls from angry residents complaining about receiving the email from Patel. On Wednesday, Capoccia said she handled more than 25 calls.
Town Clerk Alice Roker, who is not running for reelection, said the email addresses were requested legally through the Freedom of Information Law on two separate occasions. The first on June 10 by Barbara Walker, a member of the Working Families Party, and the second on July 21 by Victoria Abbate, wife of Democratic Town Justice candidate Richard Abbate. In both instances, Roker said affidavits were signed stating the email addresses would not be used for solicitation or fund raising purposes.
“The email blast in no way broke any law or in any way was ‘an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,’” said Ron Stokes, co-chairman of the Yorktown Democratic Committee. “The Republicans are desperate. They’re grasping for straws in an effort to stop the bleeding in their campaign. The Republicans clearly don’t know the difference between ‘commercial solicitation’ and political free speech. Councilman Patel has every right, and obligation, to inform his constituents of his position. He wasn’t soliciting anything.”
No so, according to Grace, who insisted Patel, whose email had a subject line “Stop Supervisor Grace from wasting millions on a new highway garage that we don’t need!,” was soliciting votes and urging the approximately 2,700 people who were sent the email to sign a petition opposing Grace’s plan to move the highway garage on Front Street and revitalize downtown Yorktown with a multi-use commercial building.
“It’s a solicitation for support. I can’t think of anything more obnoxious than receiving campaign solicitations on an email address provided to my town for the purposes of receiving official town communications,” Grace said. “The email is completely inaccurate. The petition is erroneous. The highway garage won’t cost the town a dime.”
In paperwork submitted for a series of state grants, town officials stated the highway garage project would cost $4.8 million. Despite those estimates town officials gave to the state in search of funds that even if received would require $2.7 million from Yorktown, Grace has maintained the project may still not cost the town anything once the property is sold ($1.5 million) and put back on the tax rolls (about $90,000 annually).
He also has stressed having the two departments under one roof would improve employee efficiency and extend the life of equipment since trucks are now parked outside year-round.
Patel, who has two years remaining on his councilman term, said the more than 2,000 residents who have signed a petition spearheaded by the United Taxpayers of Yorktown against the highway garage demonstrates how Grace is out of touch with his constituents on the issue.
“I have walked 8,000 homes. I can get 16,000 emails if I wanted,” Patel said.
Siegel, who is running for a full four-year term on the Town Board, said the use of emails in this day and age is a common, less costly way to communicate with residents, adding only a few residents who received Patel’s email asked to be unsubscribed.
“Just because Supervisor Grace says it’s so, doesn’t make it so,” she said. “Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the NYS Office of Open Government – and the acknowledged expert on the Freedom of Information Law – has said , unequivocally, that the release of the town email lists was not an unwarranted invasion of personal property AND that Councilman Patel’s email blast was not a solicitation. If the Republicans were interested in the truth, all they had to do was make a call to Freeman.”
Meanwhile, Siegel maintained Grace recently used the town’s audio visual equipment, four staff members and the Town Hall meeting room to tape a more than two-hour program on his cable show Grace Notes to outline his position on the highway garage and his vision for the downtown.
“The use of government resources for a political campaign effort is a serious charge that must be answered,” Councilman Tom Diana, who is running for a full four-year term on the board on Grace’s ticket, said in a written release. “Spam is an annoyance, but compromising the town’s email list is unconscionable.”
Rick has more than 40 years’ experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, running the gamut from politics and crime to sports and human interest. He has been an editor at Examiner Media since 2012. Read more from Rick’s editor-author bio here. Read Rick’s work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/pezzullo_rick-writer/