CATSKILL — The town attorney released a response to an Albany attorney regarding the town’s compliance with open meetings laws on Friday.
Attorney John Dowd wrote a letter dated April 29 to Zoning Board Chairwoman Lynn Zubris and Catskill Town Supervisor Doreen Davis about the two meetings held April 11. Residents were given one-day notice for the town board meeting, classified as an emergency meeting, held at 5:30 p.m., and same-day notice for the zoning board meeting, held at 5 p.m.
Dowd cited Section 104 of the Public Officers Law to defend his argument that the public was not adequately notified of the meetings.
“[The law] requires public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto to be given or electronically submitted to the news media and to be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least 72 hours before such meeting,” according to Section 104.
Dowd alleges that the town intentionally withheld information from the public because the meetings had to do with controversial negotiations with Sheepdog Warrior Shooting Range on Haines Road.
The Zoning Board determined that law enforcement training was not a recreational use in March, leaving owner Ed Rivenburg the option to seek a use variance for the property.
Town attorney Michael Smith opposes Dowd’s claim.
“Your letter to Town Supervisor Davis and Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Zubris iterates a sequence of meetings, unfounded assumptions, and inferences as a basis to spin a false narrative to conclude that the Town of Catskill intentionally violated the Open Meetings Law,” Smith wrote. “The truth lies elsewhere. Indeed, as I describe below, the timeline connected with the very meetings detailed in your letter actually demonstrate that the town engaged in performing its duties not only in full compliance with the technical requirements of the Open Meetings Law but also in compliance with the spirit of the Open Meetings Law.”
At the meetings in question, both boards passed resolutions to authorize a tolling agreement with Sheepdog, which extends the statute of limitations for Rivenburg to make an appeal to the zoning board another 60 days. This option would have expired on April 14 but will now expire June 13, according to Smith’s letter.
Dowd argued in his letter that the meetings in question could have been rescheduled for a later date and proper notice could have been given to the public.
“Only the town’s choice in scheduling and its desire to conceal from the public its decision with Sheepdog about Sheepdog’s desired future use of the property prevented this from happening,” Dowd wrote.
The town had no choice but to call the emergency meeting, Smith said.
“There were no communications or meetings between the town and the gun range from March 15 and onward until April 4,” Smith wrote. “The town could only bring proposed resolutions before both boards by calling emergency meetings.”
The first time a tolling agreement was suggested was April 9, Smith said.
“David Brennan, Esq., representing the gun range, called Supervisor Davis and suggested that the town explore the concept of an agreement between the town and the gun range extending the deadline to appeal for the purpose of exploring amending the zoning law to permit law enforcement training,” Smith wrote. “Supervisor Davis advised Brennan to explore the concept with Michael Smith, the Town Attorney.”
The April 10 zoning board meeting, which at the time had no agenda items, was canceled, Smith said.
Dowd also mentioned that the town board meeting was not live-streamed, as most town meetings are.
“Your letter also states that both board meetings were not streamed that day and this omission constituted further evidence of the plot to intentionally violate the Open Meetings Law,” Smith wrote. “In fact, streaming of Town Board meetings is only routinely available for regularly scheduled meetings not emergency meetings and streaming is not part of the zoning board’s procedure at any meetings.”
Dowd also noted a lack of agendas being posted on the town website.
Neither are protected by law, state Director of Committee on Open Government Robert Freeman said.
“The law says they have to give the time and place,” he said. “It says nothing about agendas.”
The town did its best to comply with the law given the limited time frame, Smith concludes.
“The three-day timeline from April 9, Brennan’s email tolling agreement proposal, to April 11, the date of the emergency meetings, demonstrate a justifiable basis for the scheduling of the emergency meetings that fully complied with the Open Meetings Law,” Smith wrote. “Moreover, the Town Clerk at the earliest opportunity published the zoning board resolution, the Town Board resolution, and the Tolling Agreement on the town website in an effort to be completely transparent. Clearly, the town not only complied with the requirements of the Open Meetings Law but also complied with the spirit of the law.”
Freeman emphasized important distinctions in the law.
“If the meeting is scheduled a week in advance, notice has to be given not less than 72 hours before the meeting,” Freeman said. “If they knew about it for less than a week, the notice has to be to the extent that it is practicable.”