BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Campaigning for this fall’s election in Orangetown got off to a roaring startTuesday when Republican supervisor candidate Walter Wettje accused incumbent Democratic Supervisor Andrew Stewart of misusing town e-mail lists to solicit support for his private campaign events including a golf tournament and a barbeque.
Stewart, a first term incumbent seeking re-election to another two-year term this November, immediately took responsibility for the recent incidents, blaming one on a campaign aide who did it on his own without realizing the impropriety and without authority, and the other on himself for being computer illiterate.
This fall’s race in Orangetown could decide the political future of town government for at least the next two years, depending on which candidates from which political parties gain control of the Town Board in November.
The five-man board currently consists of one Democrat, Stewart; and four Republican councilmen, Denis Troy, Thomas Morr, Thomas Diviny and Paul Valentine.
The terms of Stewart, Troy and Diviny expire this Dec. 31, with Morr and Valentine continuing to serve with two remaining years on their four-year terms of office. All three are expected to seek re-election, although town nominating conventions have yet to be held by either major party.
Political control of the Town Board is at stake in this year’s election, since a GOP sweep would give them total control of the council, while a Democratic sweep would give that party 3-2 control, wresting it away from the Republicans for the first time in several years.
The alleged misuse of town e-mail lists first arose a month ago at a Town Board meeting when it was brought up by GOP Councilmen Troy and Diviny, both of whom are golfers at Blue Hill, and who received an e-mail invitation to participate in a private, fund-raising golf tournament being held at Blue Hill sponsored by Stewart’s re-election campaign committee.
At the time they questioned the supervisor about how the event occurred, saying that to the best of their knowledge the mailing list was compiled, owned and used only by Orangetown and its Parks and Recreation Department, supposedly only for official town business regarding the golf course, not for private fund raising or political events.
Stewart dismissed the controversy at the time, saying he knew nothing about it and calling it an apparent mistake by one of his campaign workers. The issue appeared to be over before it ever really got started, at least for the time being.
It re-surfaced again this week, however, when Wettje questioned Stewart during the public comment portion of the meeting, accusing his political opponent of trying to avoid the issue, and demanding that the supervisor reimburse the town $1,500 “to cover the postage, envelopes and paper that should have been used to contact these approximately 3,000 residents of the town.”
Troy and Diviny followed Wettje’s remarks with brand new charges as well, accusing Stewart of repeating the mistake by sending out new e-mails, inviting recipients to a fund-raising barbeque for the supervisor’s re-election campaign.
At first Stewart tried to downplay the growing controversy, saying the matter was being investigated by the town’s Board of Ethics, and should soon be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
He called first on Deputy Supervisor Alan Ryff, a former Republican councilman who is now his designated deputy, as well as a consultant and political advisor. Ryff said the matter had been turned over to the Board of Ethics and called on its chairman, Michael Mandel, for a report. Mandel agreed he had received the referral, was familiar with the accusations, and said the matter would be discussed in detail at the board’s next meeting.
He did not give any date for that meeting, and said he felt constrained not to talk about the incidents before his board had a chance to review the charges and issue a formal report.
Stewart decided to expand on his earlier response, however, apparently trying to nip the brewing controversy in the bud before it exploded into a full-fledged scandal right at the start of his re-election campaign.
Both instances were inadvertent mistakes, the supervisor asserted, one by a campaign aide and the other by himself, due to his lack of sophistication on the use of computers and e-mail lists.
He said one of his re-election campaign workers also serves on the Blue Hill Golf Course advisory committee, and thus had access to the course’s e-mail list of members and guests.
That worker, whom he declined to name, thought it was logical to send an invitation to Stewart’s golf tournament to known golfers, such as the 3,000 names on the course’s list. He did so without ever consulting with Stewart or other members of the committee or the golf course, assuming the list was public information and thus available for such use.
Stewart said he didn’t learn of that mistake until Troy and Diviny questioned him as to why they received the e-mail invitation to his private fund raiser when they were obviously not good candidates, being from the opposition political party.
It was an accidental mistake naively made by a politically inexperienced aide, has been corrected, and would not happen again, Stewart assured the councilmen.
Regarding the e-mail invitation Troy and Diviny received to his upcoming barbeque fund raiser, Stewart called it a “regrettable mistake” on his part, due to his own naivety in using computers and e-mail lists.
He explained the latest gaffe by noting that when he became supervisor in January of 2012, he discovered the town’s own e-mail mailing list contained only about 300 addresses of people who wanted to be notified of upcoming Town Board meetings, events and activities as well as emergencies such as town hall or road closings or similar incidents.
He has spent the past18 months expanding that list by adding his own personal list, a list of 194 town employees and soliciting new names everywhere he went. The list now contains about 2,500 addresses and is used for general town hall “e-mail blasts” and other informational purposes.
Not wanting to repeat the mistake of the golf course mailing list, Stewart said he attempted to download his own personal list back from the town list by selecting “Andy” as they keyword, and then sending the B-B-Q invitation to that select list. What he didn’t realize, he said, was the 194 town employees also transferred under his name, because he is a town employee. Troy and Diviny, as paid councilmen, are also town employees on that list, and that is whey they inadvertently received the invitations, Stewart explained.
He added that he made a conscious effort not to use any town lists for the latest invitation, only to be done in by his own inexperience with computer lists.
He added that once he realized his mistake he immediately sent out a follow-up e-mail to the 194 people who inadvertently received the invitation, apologizing for his error.
Stewart’s apologies and explanations seemed to do little to mollify Troy or Diviny, however, with both councilmen saying they would await the report from the Board of Ethics before taking the matter further.
Nor did Stewart’s responses mollify Wettje, who read a two-page statement into the Town Board minutes, demanding a public apology and restitution to Orangetown’s taxpayers.
The Republican candidate for supervisor to replace Stewart, Wettje is a Pearl River resident who began his statement by quoting from the town’s pre-amble to its charter creating a local board of ethics.
“In a democracy, government should be open, accessible, equitable and efficient,” the statement says. “Democratic government requires that elected officials be independent, impartial and responsible to the people. In order to foster public confidence in the integrity of its government, public officers must not use or be perceived to be using their office for personal gain.”
Wettje said he was particularly offended by the golf tournament e-mail because it requested recipients who wanted to participate in the event or donate money to respond to Orangetown’s official website of www.Orangetown golf.com
“I was shocked and extremely disappointed that you, Mr. Supervisor, did not accept responsibility and hold yourself accountable for the clear ethics violation that was committed by you and your team. Instead you brushed it off by stating to Councilman Troy that they were baseless accusations, that you really did not know anything about the e-mail distribution and this was a first attempt at a golf outing.
“As we all know,” Wettje continued, “including you, Mr. supervisor, it did happen and it was clearly unethical. This clear unethical behavior may also have an adverse affect on the town’s future marketing and notification activities as those residents that feel their e-mail address was used for unethical behavior may decide to discontinue allowing the town to use their e-mail addresses for contact purposes.”
Wettje concluded by demanding that Stewart write a check to Orangetown for $1,500 to cover the costs he should have born himself to mail the invitations and “I also challenge you tonight, Mr. supervisor, to be a leader that leads from the front not the rear, holding yourself accountable and accepting responsibility for this unethical activity.”
After sailing through a routine 21-item agenda Tuesday, the Town Board scheduled its next three meetings for odd dates and purposes, which should lead to some confusion among residents who regularly attend the sessions, feeling they are often more entertaining than going to a movie or watching television.
The next public meeting will be Saturday, Sept. 7, from 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m., when the board will meet with all department heads in town government for a preliminary review of their budget requests for 2014. Although it is a workshop meeting where no action will occur, it is still open to the public for those wanting to get an advance glimpse of what next year’s budget and resultant property taxes might look like at this advance date. The board will spend the next two months reviewing and refining those budget requests, in order to come up with a final budget proposal by early November.
Besides meeting with department heads in open session, the board expects to meet privately in executive session sometime that same day to review complaints about a town employee.
The next meeting was supposed to be Tuesday, Sept. 10 but that is primary Election Day so the board voted to change it to Wednesday, and then again toMonday, Sept. 9. The meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m., and will include a presentation by the boards and/or staffs of the four hamlet libraries that comprise the Orangetown Public Library System.
The representatives of the Blauvelt, Orangeburg, Tappan and Palisades Libraries will present their proposed budgets for 2014, which the Town Board must approve and include within their own budget for funding purposes. As association libraries the four entities have no ability to issue bonds or adopt budgets on their own, instead coming to the town for their monies, which the town must include in its own budget to come up with the cash required to fund the libraries. Orangetown’s other three public libraries, Pearl River, Nyack and Piermont; are school district libraries, which adopt their own budgets and raise the necessary funds through public referendums held annually.
The final meeting in September will be Tuesday, Sept.17, when the board will receive proposed budgets from the volunteer ambulance corps and the fire districts. The only fire district over which the town has control is Blauvelt, which is a fire protection district run by an advisory board. The Town Board serves as that district’s board of fire commissioners and must approve all budgets, all expenditures, and all personnel matters such as accepting new volunteer recruits and promoting volunteers to various officer positions.