Westhampton Beach Village Attorney Again Blocks Release Of Public Document

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For the second time since April, Westhampton Beach Village Attorney Richard Haefeli has ordered village officials not to release a document that is classified as a public record under the New York State Open Meetings Law.

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously last Thursday, August 1, to table the latest document, a proposal from Village Planner Kyle Collins outlining the scope and cost of updating the village’s master plan. On Monday, Village Clerk-Treasurer Elizabeth Lindtvit said Mr. Haefeli told her she cannot release the proposal because it is an “interoffice memorandum.”

But Camille Jobin-Davis, the assistant director for the New York State Committee on Open Government, said Tuesday that the law requires governing boards to release proposed resolutions that are scheduled to be the subject of discussion prior to or during the meeting. That portion of the law was added as an amendment in 2012, she said.

The proposal in question was on the agenda as a topic of discussion prior to last week’s meeting, and the trustees discussed it briefly before voting to hold it over. Given those facts, Ms. Jobin-Davis said the village has no basis for withholding the document.

Mr. Haefeli argued on Tuesday that the trustees’ decision to table the proposal, which had been listed on the evening’s agenda, does not qualify as a discussion.

“I don’t know what else I can tell you—my opinion is that it is not subject to review at this point,” he said, adding that it would be released after it is discussed at the August 21 work session.

In April, Mr. Haefeli directed former Village Clerk Rebecca Molinaro to withhold a 300-page audit that was also circulated among board members and, again, listed on the agenda. She released a copy to The Press only after Robert Freeman, the executive director of the Department of State Committee on Open Government, stated that the document should be made available. The copy provided to the paper contained about 60 pages of redacted material.

Mr. Collins did not return a call or email seeking comment on his proposal.

Immediately after last week’s meeting, Trustee Charlie Palmer said Mr. Collins’s proposal states it would cost $40,000 and take about nine months for his firm to update the master plan, a document that dictates zoning restrictions. The trustees asked that he provide them with an estimate in June, after repeated requests over the past few years from developer Andrew Mendelson demanding that they amend the code so he can build a grocery store on 4.2 acres he owns along the west side of Old Riverhead Road. His land falls in the B-3 business and I-1 industrial zoning districts, neither of which permits supermarkets.

Mr. Mendelson and his attorney, Frank Isler, have requested that the trustees add the words “grocery store” to its definition of the B-3 business zoning district, though Mr. Haefeli has repeatedly said the trustees must instead amend the master plan, a lengthier process that involves ample opportunity for public input. Under New York State Village Law, all land use regulations must be consistent with the master plan, and the current document only recommends the grocery store use in the downtown area of Westhampton Beach.

Trustee Patricia DiBenedetto, who did not attend last Thursday’s meeting since she was out of town, said Mr. Collins’s proposal was dated July 31, meaning that the trustees had little time to digest it before it was added to the next night’s agenda “In all honesty, the trustees did the right thing holding it over,” she said. “It’s a big issue.”

She added, however, that she thinks the document should have been released. “I am shocked with that one,” she said. “I really am.”

Both she and Mr. Palmer, along with Deputy Mayor Ralph Urban, Trustee Hank Tucker and Mayor Conrad Teller have said they had hoped they would have the option of examining the code and consider a possible amendment without the lengthy and expensive process of updating the master plan. They said they have invited Mr. Collins to attend the work session on Wednesday, August 21, at 7 p.m. at village hall to discuss the matter.

Mr. Palmer said after the meeting that he favored the option of holding a public hearing to gather more input from the public on the possibility of amending the code before committing to the process of updating the master plan.

Mr. Teller, Mr. Tucker and Mr. Palmer did not return calls asking their opinion of Mr. Haefeli’s refusal to release the public document.

“Mr. Haefeli is very conservative in some instances, and I can understand why, because the village is involved in a great deal of litigation from other aspects, and sometimes there is a lot of trickle down from these things … ” Mr. Urban said. “I’m not a lawyer, so I tend to follow his counsel, and that is what he is paid to do.”

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