WESTFIELD - The Westfield Village Board recently held what one trustee called an illegal meeting. Another trustee said this is nothing new.
Trustee Robert Cochran, at a recent village board meeting, said the village held an illegal meeting violating the Open Meetings Law on March 27. He also said Trustee Debra Puckhaber illegally expended village funds.
"We should all know what the Open Meetings Law is. I think the table certainly knows that a meeting was conducted ..." Cochran said.
Puckhaber said this is not the first time the village has broken the Open Meetings Law and it has happened several times in the past. She told Cochran the village could "waive" this meeting for all the times previously.
"We'll waive that one against all the other times that Open Meetings Law had been broken," she said.
The events leading up to the meeting involved Mayor Michael VandeVelde and his decision to not reappoint Vincent Luce, village administrator, and Rebecca Jackson, deputy village clerk. Luce has been in the position as village administrator since 2001 and clerk since 1996. Jackson has been deputy clerk since 1995.
"... I can tell you that I have felt I have not had the support from that department I felt I should have. I called the two of them in to tell them that they were not being fired, but I did not feel comfortable putting them up for a full year," VandeVelde said.
The village trustees were informed of VandeVelde's decision following his meeting. According to Cochran, he was contacted by Trustee Dave Brooker trying to set up an immediate meeting of the trustees on March 27. In the meantime, Cochran contacted New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials to ask if this meeting would be legal.
"I contacted NYCOM (asking) can this take place where the trustees - formally or not, whether it's in a room or not - get together and make a decision to expend village's money without it being posted to what extent's practical to the media," said Cochran. "It was basically an improper open meeting that was conducted, regardless of how it wants to be viewed."
Puckhaber said she had contacted legal counsel to see what procedure, if any, the trustees could follow to possibly stop VandeVelde for terminating these positions. In her process to collect more information, Puckhaber drafted an email to be sent to the village's attorney, Matthew Feldman. She then placed calls to the other trustees to receive their input. She deemed the situation as an emergency for the village.
"It was an emergency situation where you try to intercede ... (Getting rid of Luce and Jackson) it's not in the best interest in the village," Puckhaber said.
Cochran said according to NYCOM, to not reappoint an official is not deemed an emergency. When an emergency meeting is called, the meeting is to be posted to what extent practical prior to the meeting.
"By no means, under no interpretation, is (termination of a term) an emergency," Cochran said. "Their intentions may have been good but they knowingly went ahead illegally. It's a complete violation of the Open Meetings Law."
Cochran received a copy of an email at 5 p.m., stating a quorum of the trustees would like information on elected official duties and sanction or removal of a public official. It was signed by Puckhaber, Brooker and Trustee Rick Raynor. Cochran said he did receive a copy of a letter prior to the finalized email to Feldman, but was under the impression it was to be addressed to VandeVelde. Puckhaber said she did try to contact Cochran prior to hitting send, to no avail.
Since that email, Cochran has had conversations with Feldman, who was under the impression the meeting was legal, and the village was to be charged; his law services are well over $100 an hour.
Robert Freeman, executive director for the Committee on Open Government, said that a village board cannot meet and take action on behalf of the village unless it is in public or by videoconference, according to the Open Meetings Law. He said the trustees cannot approve a resolution without having the meeting posted. If a meeting is to be held with less than seven days notice, every effort should be made to inform the public and media of that meeting in a reasonable time.
Luce and Jackson will continue in their positions in a holdover position until it is decided if they will be replaced. At that time, VandeVelde can appoint another person for a mayoral appointment. All appointments must be approved by the village board.
"If Mike brought somebody forward that we didn't, with a majority vote, approve of, according to NYCOM, who is in their place stays ... Vince and Becky could not disappear from their positions," Cochran said.