$20K ARPA denial reveals how Town Board does business
Reporting by Robert Lynch, November 17, 2023; expanded coverage November 23, 2023
“I think you know that usually when we hold a vote, we make a decision, I accept the results, and I say it’s done. Maybe I didn’t prevail. But Democracy worked—the Rule of Democracy worked. I believe in the Rule of Democracy. And I also believe in the Rule of Law.”
Councilperson Robert Lynch, Enfield Town Board meeting, Nov. 16, 2023
A three-month financial tug-of-war between the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) and a majority of the Enfield Town Board ended November 16th when Fire Company officials dropped their appeal to keep $20,000 in earlier-awarded federal pass-through moneys that they’d hoped to spend on equipment and perhaps take first steps toward providing bunk room sleeping quarters for volunteers.
The Town Board had granted the pared-down allocation with funds from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARPA) late last May, but then rescinded the award November 8th, a majority then arguing that Enfield’s subsequent transition to a Fire District had altered the equation, and that the money would be better spent paying the attorney who oversaw the Fire District’s formation.
“Unfortunately those that voted to rescind ARPA funds to the Enfield Fire Company are not going to change their minds,” EVFC President Dennis Hubbell wrote this writer, Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch, who’d invited Hubbell to attend the Thursday meeting and plead the Fire Company’s case. Lynch read portions of the email’s contents aloud at the meeting. “I’ve seen it for 48 years, give the Fire Company money and then take it away. Nothing changes just the people,” Hubbell wrote.
The November 16th Special meeting had been called to transact other business. The funding issue wasn’t on that night’s brief agenda. But upon this Councilperson’s initiative, it became the main point of disagreement. And the discussion that emerged concerning the procedure the Board had followed a week earlier to claw back the ARPA money drew a bright line between transparency and expediency and once again put this lone Councilperson at odds with the Town Board’s majority.
Councilperson Lynch had provided the only dissent November 8th when the Town Board’s majority voted to reclaim and redirect the earlier-granted ARPA award to attorney Brad Pinsky and his law firm. At now this later meeting, Lynch pressed his argument before the Town Board that the November 8th action had been procedurally defective and outright illegal; that Councilperson Jude Lemke’s on-the-spot scripting and introduction of the rescission had violated a provision of New York’s Open Meetings Law that supposedly requires Resolutions be posted online 24 hours in advance of a meeting.
“That Resolution regarding the ARPA funds for EVFC was written on the fly,” this member told the Town Board. “It was written by one of our Councilpersons. And it was put to the floor and a vote was had. And I would argue that people who would advocate either for or against this decision were not notified, were not given notification.”
“And people, particularly people from the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, were not able to come here, sit in these chairs, and state their case that they should continue to have their ARPA funding,” Lynch continued. “And I think that what we did constituted an abuse of the Open Meetings Law; was null and void and being contrary to law.”
Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond disputed Lynch’s claim and quoted an opinion by a municipal association attorney who’d said that an exception in the law permitted Lemke’s sudden move.
Redmond related the opinion of Lori Mithen-DeMasi, General Counsel for the New York Association of Towns. According to Mithen-DeMasi, the section of the Open Meetings Law cited by Lynch was “irrelevant” to Lemke’s Resolution since the Board’s action slipped through the law’s loophole permitting a Resolution be drafted and submitted “whenever it’s practicable.” Of course, only Redmond would know how well she’d placed the issue at hand in proper context for the attorney. “Practicability” in this instance, it would seem, requires some sort of sudden, unforeseen need. Lemke’s motion had been bandied about in Town Board meetings twice since September.
“What we did,” Redmond claimed the association attorney had affirmed regarding the Board’s action, “was substantive.” Moreover, “it was, you know, whole, and yes, she said it was fine,” Redmond said.
“I’m not a lawyer,” Lynch acknowledged. “I’m not going to dispute her decision. But I think on the spirit of the law, it was wrong. Because we knew how passionate that persons from the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company were going to be about this matter. They were blindsided. I was blindsided. I didn’t know it was coming….”
Supervisor Redmond interrupted. She insisted that Lynch—as well as the EVFC—should have braced themselves for Lemke’s Resolution, purely on the presumption that a matter discussed at a prior meeting would automatically be raised at a session subsequent. (September’s tabled discussion had not been listed on either the October or November agendas.)
“Denny was here in the meeting before,” Lemke remarked, “and we had a whole conversation.” “And then you asked us to table it until the next meeting,” Lemke told Lynch, “and we brought it at the next meeting and passed it. And the whole Fire Department—Denny was here; the Chief was here.”
One can excuse Jude Lemke for getting her meeting dates and discussions mixed up. When Lemke first raised the issue in September, no Fire Company representatives attended. Lynch sought postponement to allow Fire Company input. October’s discussion came only when Company President Hubbell had brought up the matter during floor privileges, his question prompting an icy exchange with the Supervisor and Lemke that ended with Hubbell walking out of the meeting. The Board discussed the matter no further that night or during October. Instead, it waited until November 8th, when, again, no Company officials attended, and the agenda referenced no potential action.
“We had talked about it in a previous meeting, so I thought we had all understood this was going to happen,” Redmond remarked at the most recent Thursday session, the Supervisor suggesting all parties involved—Lynch and the EVFC included—should have expected action November 8th. “And it was wonderful (for) Jude to, you know, draft that during the meeting,” Redmond took care to mention.
The Supervisor stretched meeting rules further, maintaining, in her opinion, that Lemke’s Resolution wasn’t needed at all, since paying the attorney $15,000 was part of the “audit claim” the Board also adopted that night.
But the Supervisor’s assertion stands facially untrue. An “audit claim” relates to payment of monthly bills. It does not deal at all with rescinding an ARPA award to the EVFC. The Board needed Lemke’s hand-written Resolution to take care of that.
“Nothing we’ve got to do about it now,” Lynch said regarding the procedural breach. “The issue is settled. The Fire Company has washed its hands of the ARPA. You know, having another vote isn’t going to accomplish anything. But I think for future reference, and for future conduct of this Board, we should be a little more scrupulous about posting our Resolutions in advance.”
To resurrect the issue now, in view of President Hubbell’s position, this Councilperson stressed, “It would be a moot point.”
And washing his hands of ARPA is clearly what Denny Hubbell wants to do.
“Unless the EVFC Board of Directors tells me different I am done dealing with this ARPA issue and do not plan to attend the Town Board meeting,” Hubbell wrote in his message to Councilperson Lynch. “I’ve said this from the beginning and I’ll once again say it ‘You’re going to wish you put that money in the center of Town and burned it!’”
“It’s the devils bank roll,” The Company president described ARPA as he concluded his pointed critique.
“And those are his words,” this Councilperson told the Board. “I think it’s unfortunate. That’s the decision. The ARPA issue is done with.”
The Enfield Town Board had assigned the $20,000 American Rescue Plan award to the EVFC during a hastily-convened May 27th Enfield Town Board meeting. Board members had been given bad advice that Congress might imminently claw-back unspent portions of the nearly $350,000 ARPA allotment Washington had provided Enfield. That night, the Board split much of the unspent allotment among three nonprofit agencies: the EVFC, the Enfield Community Council, and Enfield Food Distribution, operator of the Enfield Food Pantry. The Fire Company received $25,000 less than had the other two groups. Councilperson Lemke had then persuaded the Town Board’s majority that they should subtract from the Fire Company’s share the $25,000 earlier granted to it during the previous fall’s budget process for the purchase of volunteer protective equipment, so-called “turnout gear.”
But one month later, the Town Board transferred its oversight of the Fire Company to a Fire District governed by a Board of Commissioners. The Fire District took over in August. And during a September 13th Town Board meeting, Lemke advanced the idea that the earlier-awarded $20,000 ARPA grant to the EVFC should be redirected to pay Pinsky’s bill instead.
Lemke’s opinion, supported by the Town Board’s majority, had guided her to draft the Resolution later adopted November 8th and had prompted the testy exchange with Hubbell at the October 11th meeting.
President Hubbell has maintained that the Town Board should hold to its earlier promise and that the Fire District’s creation does not preclude the EVFC from purchasing assets or from receiving the federal money.
To date, the Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners, as a group, has not weighed in on the controversy.
What was likely the Fire Company president’s final comment on the matter came the following Monday, November 20th, when Hubbell addressed the Board of Fire Commissioners.
“We did get stripped of our ARPA money,” Hubbell informed the Commissioners who now oversee fire services. “I gave up arguing with the Town about it,” he continued. “It wasn’t worth the aggravation of getting our part of the money.”
“I don’t want anything to do with it,” Hubbell said of the $5,000 in ARPA money clawed back from the EVFC, but not yet paid to the attorney. It’s likely Hubbell holds a similar attitude regarding the Town Board, itself.
The November 16th Enfield Town Board meeting was short, lasting just 30 minutes. And as its major decision of the evening, the Board awarded the lower of two bids for renovation of the Town Clerk’s Office. Cooley Construction Corporation of Trumansburg, low bidder on two other recent Town renovation projects, bid $45,780 to do the work, more than $2,100 less than did a competing bidder. Since Cooley’s bid had overlooked the need for lighting replacement, about $800 must be added to the project cost to cover the lights. Nevertheless, the low bid fell within the project’s budget.
The Clerk’s Office renovations, funded with another portion of Enfield’s ARPA allotment, will replace carpets, outdated wood paneling, remove unneeded ductwork, and improve office security. Town Clerk Mary Cornell has requested that contractors delay the work until spring, after tax-paying season has mostly ended.