Blog O’ Nimick—Shirley Lasker: Strongly Challenged, Spirited Response, Tough Truths

At March meeting of Town Council: In answer to a strong challenge about her service on the Town Council Shirley Lasker provided a spirited response. Mr. Sweet seconded her response. Mr. Gromack chose to launch a personal attack. Tough truths remain.

My challenge to Shirley Lasker began by recalling her early reputation as a campaigner for the good of Clarkstown. I then turned to observations of her in open public meetings, where she sometimes participates but almost always votes in lockstep with Mr. Gromack and does not respond to questions about problematic issues. I stated that, as far as anyone could tell, she has bought into the machine politics with Mr. Gromack. I expressed regret at the change from her former independent voice. When I speculated about possible reasons for the change, my statement was much harsher – I suggested some self-interested motives on Ms. Lasker’s part.

Ms. Lasker immediately took up the issue of her motives and stated in no uncertain terms that she has always worked for the best interests of the Town. She suggested that I as challenger was unaware of the work that she does “behind the scenes,” to use her phrase. Mr. Sweet affirmed that Ms. Lasker has consistently acted from good motives.

It is true that I do not know of Ms. Lasker’s work “behind the scenes.” I based my statement on my observations in the meetings of the Town Council. I acknowledge that I mentioned a number of possible self-interested motives. I accept her statement about her commitment to public service and hereby apologize for the implication of self-interested motives in my statement.

That leaves some tough truths to be considered:

1)      While I accept Ms. Lasker’s statement about motives, I should point out that her response indicated a misunderstanding of the other point in my statement. She is correct that I do not know about her work “behind the scenes.” My statement was about her actions in open meetings, which I have observed consistently for more than a year. I was simply saying out loud what many have been saying: her public actions have sent a message that she wholeheartedly supports the political machine that attempts to control politics in Clarkstown and that she is unwilling to challenge questionable actions by that political machine. Perhaps she has challenged some actions behind closed doors, but the Open Meetings Law is specifically designed so that citizens can see the deliberations of our representatives. Working behind closed doors does not relieve her of the obligation to engage issues in open meetings. It is that last obligation about which I was speaking a tough truth to her. In that context her actions have raised questions about whether she is trustworthy.

2)      Ms. Lasker may avoid open deliberations from a personal preference to work on issues behind the scenes. While that is not consistent with the intent of the Open Meetings Law, I will take her at her word that she has endeavored to be faithful in her work. Unfortunately the practice of avoidance of open deliberations that she prefers has been used by other individuals to conceal unethical and inappropriate behavior. So in engaging her preference, Ms. Lasker has become complicit in the practice of concealing that other behavior from public scrutiny.

3)      Evidence of inappropriate behavior can be found in the reactions when members of the public endeavor to peel back the veil concealing those actions. An obvious example was the hiring of Jay Savino. I asked simple questions about procedure and faced more obfuscation than I have ever encountered. When I persisted I faced anger and even attacks. The lack of open deliberations is concealing shenanigans in the Office of Town Attorney, problems in the personnel department, patronage appointments, and likely other matters as well. The refusal to engage in open deliberations, the unwillingness to draw back the veil is sure evidence of actions that will not withstand public scrutiny. When Ms. Lasker complies with the avoidance of open deliberations she makes the concealing of bad behavior possible.

4)      Mr. Gromack responded to my statement with anger. I do not believe that he was angry on behalf of Ms. Lasker, for he said nothing to defend her. I think that his anger is about the risk that his methods of concealing bad behavior may be undone if Ms. Lasker stops going along with them. So he responded by attempting to dismiss me as having some personality disorder that led me to make angry statements every 30 days. He claimed that he had always answered my questions and that he always spoke to me politely. His claim that he always answered my questions is patently false – rather he has on numerous occasions refused to answer questions that he found uncomfortable or that were getting too close to awkward truths.

5)      It is Mr. Gromack and Mr. Lettre with whom Ms. Lasker should be angry. I am letting her know that she is paying a very high price, despite her good intentions. It is well known that Mr. Gromack and Mr. Lettre have used the political machine to guarantee their future financial security. However, by using the avoidance of open deliberations to protect the actions of that political machine they have linked their behavior to her. In other words they are largely responsible for any taint in perceptions of her.

All members of the Town Council need to be aware of the potential cost of going along with limiting open deliberations.

Below is presented the original statement that I made in the open meeting, including the passages for which I have already offered the apology above:

This is addressed to Councilwoman Shirley Lasker, though the others of you are welcome to listen:

Shirley I have been thinking for some time about your place on this Town Board. I think about what I heard of your early days, the fight over the mall, the revision of the Code of Ethics, and similar efforts. Then I think about what I have seen as I have observed the Board for over a year now. You know that I have challenged Alex many times about things that he has done, and I have often done so in angry terms, but when I think of your role it is not anger that I feel, but pity. I wonder about how far your path has strayed across the years from the path of dedication to the service of the town with which you began.

Alex has chosen to work with the political machine that does its best to arrange politics in Clarkstown and that provides financial benefits to its members. Look at the man beside you. He has drawn from the town a high salary and a high pension as well. He can absorb his enormous re-election war chest when he retires. The question is how did you get tied into this sort of thing? You have voted the machine line on just about every issue in recent memory. From a citizen’s perspective, your move from advocate for the Town to supporter of the machine is a deep tragedy.

Sometimes I wonder how you got caught up in this and what keeps you there. Perhaps it was the feeling in earlier times that the only way to make a difference was to play inside the game. So for the sake of a little open space, such as the Traphagen property, or other personal initiatives you just went along with other votes. Or was the price a little higher – the actual pay as councilwoman and deputy supervisor? Or was the price being able to place a friend, such as the treasurer of your re-election campaign as a deputy town attorney and to be able to protect her job? Whatever the deal you struck, it involved votes to support the machine and that has tainted people’s views of you more than I can describe.

I have heard some say that one has to play the game to get elected and serve on the Board. Now look around you. Things are changing. Alex has his exit strategy mapped out. Ed Lettre has secured his future. You have paid a much higher price than they have because they had little reputation to lose. Even now you could make some difference if you took back your independent voice and independent vote, particularly when there are matters of deep concern to senior citizens before the Board, but I am afraid that you will find the costs to be too high. So I circle back to where I began – what you have become and the road you are on is a tragedy – you are not trusted any more – and you have my pity.

Once again let me state clearly that I accept Ms. Lasker’s statement of good intentions and service, and I apologize for publicly suggesting otherwise.

Respectfully,

Tom Nimick