Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is this Legal?

(A letter from the incumbent Town of New Paltz Highway Superintendent to this week's New Paltz Times)

Do you want to know the truth about the New Paltz Highway Department and how it is run and how it works? Do you want to make an educated vote on Election Day -- one that you know will affect your community and you as a taxpayer?

I invite all concerned citizens to visit the Highway Garage, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and talk with me, my Deputy Jennifer or any employee. You will be provided with a tour and your questions will be answered.

If you are unable to come to the Highway Garage, call my office at 255-5050 and schedule an appointment. I will come to your home to speak with you or pick you up and provide transportation to and from the Highway Garage.

Phil Johnson, Superintendent of Highways
Town of New Paltz


Martin McPhillips said...

Is it legal?

What's your point? That putting on a dog and pony show at the highway department for anyone interested in how it works before an election is underhanded and a subversion of democracy?

Is this too much transparency? Or do you think that Phil Johnson will cleverly divert the attention of naive and unsuspecting voters from the real issues by showing them what the highway department actually does?

Would it be illegal for the Elting Library to offer tours to voters before they vote on the big increase in public funding for the library on this year's ballot? Should it be illegal? On what basis?

How about this?

"The Middle School PTA is sponsoring a Community Forum on the renovation of the
Middle School on Wednesday, October 14, 2009. The evening will begin with students
conducting guided tours of the middle school facility at 6:30 PM.
The Community
Forum will begin at 7:00 PM in the Middle School Auditorium."

Now there's a dog and pony show in which "the children" will be used to sell a renovation that will cost tens of millions of dollars. How innocent is that?

TG said...

That's not an apt comparision. Introducing the public to the substance of a proposed expenditure - by the same public - is not remotely the same as using one's public office to promote a personal election while on the job.

Actually, in at least one state it's a crime to perform campaign work while on duty.
"According to Florida statute 104.31, it is a first-degree misdemeanor for an employee of the state or any political subdivision to participate in any political campaign for elective office while on duty."


Martin McPhillips said...

Well, is Phil Johnson having a cocktail party at the highway department? Or holding a campaign rally? Is he only inviting his supporters to the highway garage? Is he making a speech? The offer sounds to me like "come see for yourself what we do here."

When Toni Hokanson advertised that she would ride the New Paltz Loop Bus for several hours earlier this summer, offering to pay the fares of anyone who wanted to meet her, what was that?

And is it really appropriate to use students to front for a huge school construction expenditure?

Phil Johnson doesn't have twice monthly meetings of his staff broadcast on local public access, the way town board meetings are broadcast (and re-broadcast), that constantly introduce and reintroduce him to the public.

Likewise, would an invitation to town hall to see how it functions be "illegal" during campaign season?

As long as Johnson isn't fundraising or handing out campaign literature, I don't see anything wrong with him inviting people to visit the highway department to see what it's about, as opposed to hearing nothing but abstractions about who is a wonderful guy and what a terrific highway boss he will be.

I'm far more concerned about using school kids to sell massive construction projects.

Steve Greenfield said...

This is not an open house for citizens to see how their public operations are conducted. Given Johnson's multiple references to the purpose of the invitation being to influence voting behavior, this is campaigning, plain and simple, on and with use of public property and public employees, and it's forbidden. And even if he hadn't made those specific references, the state ethics board would take a very dim view towards a candidate who has never held an open house while holding office for 8 years is suddenly holding one three weeks before his first contested election. They use words like "stretches credulity" when shooting down claims like that. But that's icing on the cake -- the electoral intent of the invitation was made plain, more than once.

There is no question that using Town time, employees, and property -- even phones and copying machines -- for campaign purposes is a violation of ethics. The matter of offering employee time is an even more serious problem. These are his underlings, to whom he can assign easy jobs, hard jobs, or lucrative overtime paid with taxpayer money. Using his underlings to support his campaign in the scope of their employment is inherently coercive and an abuse of office -- not to mention that they're our employees, not his, working on our dime, for a full work day, which does not include campaigning for their boss.

The bottom line is this: it is an egregious violation of office, the public trust, public property, public employees, and campaign ethics.

The library is not part of the Town of New Paltz. It's a private non-profit. The workers don't work for the taxpayer. Their ballot issue is not a bond. They can do whatever they want -- the public employees laws and ethics guidelines don't cover them.

The public information session(s) regarding the Middle School have nothing to do with selling the bond. Nobody even knows how much the bond will be for, or how the building it's intended to pay for will be configured. Quite honestly, we haven't even formally voted to bring a bond resolution -- that's down the road a few weeks after we get a whole bunch more questions answered. It's likely, I won't kid you about that; but not definite, because some of the early numbers looked a bit scary and we have lots more work to do. Which is why we're holding hearings. This past Wednesday we heard from the teaching staff on what they think the building needs. We've heard suggestions from architects, the athletics director, and we just agreed this past Wednesday on a construction manager to detail engineering options and cost potentials. Next week we'll start hearing from the public on what THEY'd like to see -- or not see -- in this project and its potential cost. That's called open government. It's also good government -- the seven of us don't know everything, and we need to gather all sorts of opinions and expert advice. So that, too, is completely unlike what Phil Johnson is attempting.

Phil is a public employee and office holder who is openly offering to campaign, and to have our employees campaign for him, during working hours, on public property. Not allowed, anywhere in America, and properly so. Hopefully that includes New Paltz, as the voters will soon decide.

Martin McPhillips said...

So, let me get this straight, Phil Johnson can't invite citizens out to the highway department to actually see how it operates in advance of an election (when else would they really be interested?), but the school district can use children to give tours of the Middle School to promote a twenty or thirty million dollar renovation project?

One is an egregious violation of the public trust while the other is called good government?

Phil is using public employees to advance his campaign, but the school district is using public employees and shool children for information purposes only. In the former case it is coercive and an abuse, but in the latter it's open government.

These fine hairs, how perfectly they split.

But of course you can't really speak for the school board, because that is against the policy of the board. But the way you frame it -- using "the seven of us" to refer to the school board -- you not only sound like you're speaking for the board about the board's business, but for the board about the superintendant of highway race.

Don't worry about me, though, I think it's a ridiculous policy, but you are clearly violating it.

gadfly3 said...

I guess anything is better than working

Steve Greenfield said...

Your lack of reading comprehension is astonishing.

No children are supporting a bond. No bond has been put before the public. This differs starkly from Phil, who is on the ballot, and had eight years to have an open house, and is expressly forbidden from using public property and employees for purposes of influencing voting behavior for an election, which he stated quite clearly, more than once, is the purpose of his invitation. There is no gray area.

The school administration and board is asking the public to visit us and tell us what they want. It is no different from asking the teachers to come before us and tell us what they want. Of course, the teachers already know how the school is laid out and what goes on there. Most taxpayers and other members of the public do not. So to help get information they could use to formulate the ideas they would then deliver to us, we're letting them take a tour.

I will repeat this one last time, slowly, in the mother tongue. No bond has been placed on a ballot at this time. Good, open governance requires that the public and all stakeholders have the opportunity to supply their opinions to their elected officials, and that the officials endeavor to be responsive to that input. This is good ethics and proper governance. Phil is exercising bad ethics and bad governance. It's not a matter of opinion -- it's also a matter of law.

I can't imagine how happy you'd be if we just slapped together some plan and rushed it to the ballot without receiving public input.

Billy said...

Gee, Martin, I'm glad to see such a deep concern for the children of our community. I'm sure it's sincere and compeltely separate from your desire to zing the school board/district. But have some faith in these kid's parents exercising some say in their involvement. If you can prove that they're being required to do it to satisfy a course, I'll share in your outrage. Otherwise, try and find a smarter route to criticizing school officials (there are indeed plenty available).

Anonymous said...

Greenfield and McPhillips may be missing a point-- the children are being used to convince the public that the building is unusable as is and they are suffering for it. The logical conclusion of their lobbying effort would be that we must pass a $60 million bond issue for a building project that includes all the environmental bells and whistles. In case anyone is doing the math, that amounts to over $12,000 per household in addition to current property taxes. But wait a minute--- it is being financed and there are interest charges. Make that almost $40,000 cost per household. These are HUGE numbers that require non-self interested people to evaluate. Want to see more foreclosures in New Paltz?

Billy said...

Anonymous: Sorry, but there are no non-self interested people here. Unless you live outside the district, in which case why would you bother paying attention. I agree completely that the issue needs close attention and that any entity that's spending other people's (especially taxpayer's) money will go for the platinum edition. But, in doing your numbers, keep in mind that much of the building (whatever its cost) will be paid for by the state (also our money, of course, but we will not be rewarded with a reducation in our state taxes for NOT building a new school. Small solice, I know but...

Steve Greenfield said...

Anonymous: the kids are not delivering any message about what the school needs. They were there only to be tour guides. The attendees were not handed literature outlining the building's needs or pointing to specific things to look for inside the structures that are claimed to be defficient. They were just walking around. The kids know their way around the building. They're learning about community service. There is no angle to what they're doing, or to the people who asked them to do it, which was the PTA, and not the school board, which was not involved in any way with organizing or conducting the tours.

In addition, nobody is talking about $60 million, and you do a disservice by fabricating that number, or repeating it from the fabrications of others who seek to tank public opinion about the future of the Middle School. The amount of the bond is important, because unlike private construction, the amount on the bond, or less, is the final cost -- it is illegal to run over the amount the voters approved. For that reason, the estimates are built well above the list price for the items needed, because we're well aware of the tales of the unexpected, and the increases in materials and labor costs, and energy costs, and all the other things that drive over-runs. So the estimate is made for the known list price, and then a substantial contingency amount is added to that, and that's the referendum amount. It's possible to bring the building in for less (and believe it or not, that happens regularly in school construction precisely because of the deliberate inclusion of worse-than-expected contingency amounts), but it's not possible to bring it in for more. It doesn't happen. It's illegal, so ample planning is done to prevent it. Our architects and construction managers have been in business for a long time, and built and renovated a lot of schools in the Hudson Valley, and neither has ever been on a project that went over time or over budget. Never.

Finally, no building can last forever, and even if it could, it would need periodic changes to reflect the ongoing evolution of education and the economic and social changes of our society, or maybe just local population increase. There's no way out of spending money on school buildings. Once in awhile it comes up. This is one of those times. You're right about the interest rates, but wrong in your conclusions ascribed to them. We are incredibly fortunate right now to have the lowest bond rates in history, as well as competitive bidding by construction companies due to lack of work. When recovery gets under way, both of those things will change considerably, and against our financial favor. At some point during the 20 year lifespan of the bond, recovery will happen, and our local taxpayers will have an easy time with these low payments. But if we try to play to first-glance psychology by bringing the referendum after recovery is under way, we'll be burdening our taxpayers much more substantially due to higher interest rates (over 20 years) and higher initial bids.

We have to put at least $10 million into the MS now just to get it to code and keep it from structurally failing, even if no educational improvements are involved. But even with that done, it will again face failure soon enough, so the question you need to ask is what's the best way to handle the inevitable.

Simple logic tells me I should do it while input costs and interest rates are at clear lows. Renovating the Middle School is not some wish list by an unaccountable governing team that's clueless and callous about our taxpayers. The opposite is true. It's necessary and unavoidable work that's being timed to maximize our fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers. All of us on the board save Dan are property taxpayers, and his parents are property taxpayers, so the interest of the taxpayers is not something we could be accused of neglecting. Do the math and you'll see that it's the taxpayers that are being most protected by our effort to move forward at this financially unique time.