Ramapo Residents Win First Court Skirmish in the Legal Battle To Bring Diversity and Accountability to Town Government

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

A recent court decision by the New York State Appellate Division has boosted the efforts of Ramapo residents Mike Parietti and Bob Romanowski, as well as the Preserve Ramapo party, to bring a higher level of diversity to the Ramapo Town Board. The favorable ruling will now permit Parietti and Romanowski to continue to press the Town to put two crucial questions to a public vote: shall the ward system be established for the election of councilmen or councilwomen in the Town of Ramapo; and, shall the number of councilmen or councilwomen of the Town of Ramapo be increased from four to six? The Town has been fighting such a public referendum every step of the way.

The case began in September 2012 when Parietti, 2013 Preserve Ramapo candidate for Town Supervisor, and Romanowski, who opposed Christopher St. Lawrence on the GOP line during the 2009 primary, filed the two petitions with the Town Clerk, Christian Sampson, requesting that the questions be placed on the November ballot. Instead of reviewing the petitions and making a decision, however, Sampson did nothing, prompting Parietti and Romanowski to bring an order to show cause to force the issue. Just before the court date, however, Sampson ruled that the petitions were invalid.

That was October 23, 2012. Parietti and Romanowski had three days to file an Article 78, which they did, and serve the opposing parties, which they did not. However, the third and last day they had to complete service, October 26, was also the day when Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency for all 62 counties in anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Two days later Sandy struck, and on October 31 the governor issued an executive order which in effect suspended filing deadlines for all legal matters retroactive to October 26, the date of the emergency order.

Thereafter, on November 20 Parietti and Romanowski completed the filing of their Article 78. The Town, however, opposed the matter on the grounds that it was not within the legal deadline, notwithstanding the governor’s order. The case wound all the way through the courts to the Appellate Division, which ultimately ruled in Parietti and Romanowski’s favor, clearing the way for a court decision on the Article 78.

Thus, after 20 months of litigation, Parietti and Romanowski are essentially back to square one—back in court to demand a review of Sampson’s decision to deny their original requests to change how the town elects its representatives. But both men knew going in that they had signed up for a lengthy court battle.

“We knew we would be in it for the long haul,” says Parietti. “But we’re committed to jumping through whatever hoops it takes to achieve our goals.”

“We knew that the Town was going to use every delay tactic it could to try and stop us,” adds Romanowski. “But we’re going to see this through for as long as we need to.”

According to Parietti, this is the fourth time a petition to establish voting by district has been brought before the Town. The first three, in 2003, 2004, and 2005 were lost on technicalities and dropped because of the expense of pursuing them in the courts. This time, the two men are committed to fighting in court pro se, that is, without legal representation. Thus, consideration of legal fees will not play a part in any of their future decisions to continue.

“Ramapo is a diverse community, with diverse needs and interests,” states Parietti. “We need a Board that more completely represents all the residents.”

“Ward voting means that each member of the Board will be elected by a specific area of the Town,” Romanowski explains. “That way the councilmember will be more beholden to those constituents who have elected him or her, more likely to represent that part of the community, and less likely to cave to bloc voting.”

Both men also contend that increasing the total number of Board members from 4 to 6 will also increase diversity and make it more difficult for any member or the Supervisor from attaining the two thirds vote needed to override the 2 percent tap cap. In the long run, they believe, this will save the Town a significant amount of money.

These are goals worth fighting for, both men believe, even though they also know it could take many more years just to get the electoral questions put to a public vote. But Romanowski has been politically active for more than nine years because he believes in the value of holding public officials accountable, and he is ready to continue. And Parietti, buoyed by the small victory last week, notes, “Just fighting back is empowering. The Town government has for too long operated with impunity, and we want to see that change.”