MAYVILLE - The decision to sell Busti's current town hall will not face a public referendum in the immediate future.
On Wednesday, the Hon. Judge Deborah A. Chimes filed her decision for "Richard B. Thor vs. Darlene Nygren, as Town Clerk of the Town of Busti, et al." with the Chautauqua County clerk.
Chimes, Supreme Court judge for the 8th Judicial District, ruled in favor of Busti Councilman Thor's motion in finding the petition for the referendum void, insufficient and not in accordance with the law. Thor's motion for restraining the submission of a Feb. 12 resolution of the Busti Town Board to the qualified electors of the town for their approval or disapproval was also granted. However, she denied the request to declare the board resolution duly and legally adopted in accordance with the law because there was "insufficient evidence before the court to make such a determination."
In the decision filed, the court found that there were an adequate number of signatures submitted in support of the petition, and the objections to the petitions and the petition before the court were filed in a timely manner. However, the language of the preamble to the petition signature sheets - which states "a town permissive referendum related to the sale of Busti Town Hall ... approved for sale by the Busti Town Council, Feb. 12, 2014" - was found to not clearly state that the purpose of the petition was to protest the board's resolution to sell the property.
The decision also addressed arguments that Joel Seachrist was the town attorney, and therefore had a conflict of interest. The court said the respondent presented no proof to support this and organizational meeting minutes indicate Seachrist was appointed "attorney for the town." This phrase has legal significance under town law because an attorney for the town is not a public official, but is employed to give the town board professional service and advice as the board requires.
"We are pleased with the court's decision," Seachrist said. "We hope that the town can move forward with the transaction, and that the whole residents of the town - both village residents and town outside the village - can join behind the town board and support them."
Richard Stanton, attorney for respondent Cara Birrittieri, said it will be their intention to appeal the decision to the Rochester Appellate Court as soon as it is properly filed.
"The proper place to comment on a judge's decision if you disagree with it is to properly appeal it to the Appellate Division, and that is what we intend to do," Stanton said.
The Busti-based Citizens for Better Government issued a press release Thursday night supporting the appeal.
"Members of CBG are deeply disappointed and disagree with the lower court's decision to deny the public the right to vote on what was interpreted as a technicality with the wording of the Referendum Petition," the release reads in part. "This form of petition was drafted with the assistance of the Chautauqua County Board of Elections and has been used many times previously. The CBG is confident that case law does not support the Judge's decision, and therefore backs the plan to appeal."
Birrittieri said CBG will continue to fight for the rights of Busti citizens.
"We have lost power over stunning tax hikes, we have lost any ability to curb increasing property assessments, and now we may be losing our most basic right, our right to vote," she said. "That is an appalling state of affairs in the town of Busti."
Members of CBG, a growing nonpartisan group, believe residents of the town of Busti should be concerned with this development and the actions of certain members of the town board.
"It appears that one angry town councilman, Richard Thor, with the help of the Attorney for the Town, Joel Seachrist, was able to craft a lawsuit to sidestep the basic rights of over 200 of his own constituents on the basis of a technicality," the released reads.
"Is this what we pay taxes for - so our own government can sue if we dare question its decisions?" asked Edward McCague, Busti resident and CBG member.
TORDELLA'S BUILDING PURCHASED WITH SURPLUS FUNDS
The case against the sale of the town hall at 121 Chautauqua Ave. resulted from a petition signed by more than 200 people. In February, the town board approved a resolution to purchase the former Tordella's building at 125 Chautauqua Ave. at a cost of $330,000, contingent upon the sale of the current town hall. The Jamestown Area Community Federal Credit Union, which has an expiring lease, offered the town $300,000 for the building at 121 Chautauqua Ave.
David Menzies, Busti resident and CBG member, said he was shocked by the judge's ruling.
"The signatures are valid, but the petition is not, all because of a technicality. I hope people realize how important it is to exercise our right to appeal."
Some residents have argued, that despite the cost to upgrade the facility, the town and village should merge offices into the Anthony C. Caprino Municipal Building.
The town, however, recently removed the contingency on the sale of its current town hall and began moving into the former Tordella's building, which it purchased with surplus funds. The credit union remains interested in purchasing Busti's former town hall building at 121 Chautauqua Ave.
"The CBG decided to fight the sale of the town office since the town hall building was never put up for public sale, and its sale was expected to finance the purchase of the Tordella building next door," the CBG press release reads. "Residents were simply asking the town of Busti to slow down and consider whether there are better ways to spend $580,000 of taxpayer money than purchasing and renovating a new 12,000 square foot government office on retail property in the village's prime commercial strip. Public records show the Busti population is decreasing and the number of town employees is decreasing. Based on these two facts alone, CBG members strongly disagree with the board's decision to triple the size of the town's government offices."