Thursday, September 01, 2011

Judge bans Sabbath sewer talk; Bethel lawmaker’s lips are sealed 

The battle between some residents in the Kauneonga Lake Sewer District and the organization Kollel Avreichim took a new turn at the Bethel Town Board meeting on August 27. The meeting took place on a Saturday, which meant that members of Kollel would not be able to attend or speak into the microphone because they are members of the Hasidic community, and Saturday is their Sabbath.

Barry Kula, one of the residents who has been opposed to the expansion, had proposed giving a letter to the town board, along with a petition signed by 200 town residents, opposed to the expansion of the sewer district, which Kollel is seeking.

Kollel took the matter to court, and Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge James Gilpatric issued an order prohibiting the town board from discussing the matter in any way, which also meant that they could not vote to accept and file Kula’s letter, as they do with all correspondence to the town.

But while the board was prohibited from discussing the matter, Kula was not. He read the letter during public comment, and essentially asked the board to review its previous decision to allow the sewer extension. According to the residents who signed the petition, the expansion would lead to increased housing density on Schultz Road, which would change the rural character of the neighborhood.

Councilperson Denise Frangipane did not discuss the expansion, but did discuss the court order. She said, “I find it disturbing that the court has ruled that our town board—a separate branch of government duly elected through democratic process—cannot discuss publicly a specific item of town business, and that this item must be removed from our agenda because of certain objections.

“We live in a secular society which respects all religions and the right of people to practice the religion of their choice freely. However, religious considerations do not overrule our civil legal structure. Our legislative legal and administrative processes are designed to operate independent of organized religion.

“Our community is no different than others; we meet and engage in activities on different days of the week, and inevitably someone is inconvenienced and can’t attend the meeting due to work, religious observance, child care issues, competing meetings or simply because they are out of the area on the day when the meeting is scheduled.”

She said that while she disagreed with the judge’s order, she found it more disturbing that the board chose not to fight the order, and thus was compelled to comply with it.

The expansion itself has a controversial past. The board approved it in December 2010, but 87 residents who live in the sewer district signed an earlier petition demanding a public referendum on the issue. Normally, it would then have been put to a public vote. But there was a debate over whether that earlier petition was filed on time. Kula said the opponents received the deadline date from town attorney Rob McEwan.

The question worked its way through the courts until about the end of May, when Judge Kevin Cahill ruled that the petition was, in fact, presented late.

Now the board has three options: it can withdraw its approval of the expansion; it can put the matter to public referendum; or it can let the approval for the expansion stand.


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