One kept expecting the Monty Python crew to break into last night’s hearing in Philmont, held to consider removal of Planning Board member and Churchtown volunteer firefighter Nathan Chess.
The proceeding, instigated by a tendentious complaint from Claverack Supervisor Robin Andrews, appeared to serve little purpose except to give certain residents and officials a chance to vent their spleen against Chess. Having badly lost her attempt to become a State Senator last year to a Tea Party candidate—despite pandering to the far right on guns and the minimum wage—Andrews’ complaint looks an awful lot like another clumsy attempt to curry favor with Republican insiders.
In over 15 years of watchdogging local meetings, this observer has never seen such a proceeding initiated, let alone actually held; and nothing that Chess is accused of seems that unusual by local standards. The airing of several hampers worth of dirty laundry—consisting mainly of petty personality disputes—reflected poorly on the entire Town and Planning Board, several of whose members appeared mortified to have to testify on one side or the other.
If the Board really felt the need to take some action against Chess, it would have been better served by passing a toothlessly symbolic reprimand, rather than dragging their constituents, Town employees, and volunteer agency members along this five-hour slog through the Philmont mud. This audience member began to suspect that the attorney’s fees devoted by Andrews and her colleagues would be better spent on group therapy, rather than litigation.
Even the Town’s handpicked special counsel, Dionne Wheatley, seemed to grow embarrassed by the thinness of the case handed to her by Andrews and her colleagues on the Town Board, with Wheatley’s once-confident tone becoming less and less audible as she sank lower and lower in her chair.
Commanded by the Town Board—which serves in this case as both accuser and jury—to appear in this Star Chamber, Chess hewed closely to self-researched legal arguments and lawyerly cross-examination. He managed, in Perry Mason style, to get Planning Board chair Steven Hook to admit he had incorrectly testified about the words used during their parking lot argument. Chess also pointed out that the Town had filed the complaint under an outdated portion of its code, and had failed to identify an adequate cause for removal, which needs to be factual, not subjective. Likewise, he poked legal holes in his accusers’ argument that he improperly raised safety concerns reviews by citing the Planning Board mission to ensure public safety.
Later, Chess provided a detailed illustration of the type of expert input he brings to the task of reviewing applications, explaining the importance for First Responders to have a turnaround on any long driveway to ensure that emergency vehicles can pass each other.
Several members of the Planning Board testified, with obvious reluctance, that while they might not always approve of Chess’s attitude, his continued presence had not altered the workings or effectiveness of the Board. (One took this to mean that it had been dysfunctional before, and remains dysfunctional after.)
Meanwhile attorney Wheatley refused to allow Chess to question his accuser, Supervisor Andrews—and Ms. Andrews did not insist on standing behind her accusations. Instead, the Supervisor attempted to paper over the ugly nature of the process that she’d put in motion. During the second break at hour three, Andews put on grinning Den Mother act, serving by-now cold pizza to the 30-plus attendees.
Meanwhile Wheatley wisely denied Big Up concert host Sam Wright’s request to be put on the witness stand, likely calculating that the belligerent and intensely personal nature of Wright’s various outbursts from the audience were not aiding the Town’s attempt to paint Chess as rude and intimidating. (Later, during the public comment portion of the meeting, a member of the audience who is friends with both men accused Wright of attempting to pick a boozy fight with Chess at a local pub.)
As the meeting’s fifth hour came to a close, Chess’s real offense came into focus: his steadfast refusal to just Go Along to Get Along. Two fellow members of the Planning Board complained that meeting were “no fun any more” and “not enjoyable,” to which Chess countered that reviewing an application is “not supposed to be fun. It’s work.”
Whether elected or appointed, local agencies are infamous for favoring the appearance of harmony over the more challenging process of weighing facts and regulations. When a lone Board member insists on a proper debate and review, this means his or her colleagues may have to actually read the materials, think for themselves, defend their reasoning and (worst of all) remain at the meeting long enough to miss the first hour of Prime Time TV.
The only bright spot of the evening was the impartial and good-humored moderation by Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin, who managed to dial down several potentially-explosive moments.
NOTE: In an amusing irony, one of the charges against Chess was that he had used expletives during a “man-to-man” discussion with Hook in the aftermath of a contentious meeting. An article in The Register-Star the morning just before the hearing, Bassin himself was reported to have used the word “bull----” in response to evasions by County Development czar Kenneth Flood—during the meeting, not “man to man.” This prompted this attendee to wonder out loud whether Ms. Andrews planned to file a similar complaint against her colleague. Don’t hold your breath; the obvious point here was not integrity or consistency, but the selective politicization of the Planning Board.