Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Palm Tree supporters, foes voice opinions 

Supporters of a proposal to separate Kiryas Joel from Monroe by creating a new town had a simple message for Orange County legislators on Tuesday night: vote "yes" to allow a referendum so Monroe residents may decide the future of their own town.

"Please, I beg you," Dorey Houle, a mother of five from Monroe told lawmakers seated on the stage at Central Valley Elementary School. "Let me decide. Let my husband decide what happens to the Town of Monroe."

Other speakers taking turns at the microphones in the auditorium argued the proposed Town of Palm Tree would be unconstitutional or said it hadn't been studied enough, urging lawmakers to vote "no" or postpone voting until more information was available.

"Please just put the brakes on this," Monroe resident Donna Henry said. "It's happening too fast, and without enough information."

A few hundred people attended the public hearing, the first of two the Legislature will hold before voting Sept. 7 on whether to allow a referendum in Monroe on the proposal two months later. If at least 14 of 21 lawmakers authorize a town vote, Monroe voters will decide on Nov. 7 whether to separate the 40-year-old Hasidic village and its 10,000 voters from Monroe, ending a political divide that has long stoked tensions in Monroe. Palm Tree would consist of Kiryas Joel - including 164 acres the village annexed in 2015 - and 56 additional acres.

Both Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus and Pat Davis, the Democrat challenging Neuhaus in the November election, urged lawmakers to support the referendum.

Neuhaus argued that letting Monroe voters determine the outcome was the only issue. He commended the United Monroe citizens group for taking the initiative in negotiating peace with Kiryas Joel leaders, calling the longstanding split in the community "a political Chernobyl that's spilling over into other towns." He dismissed complaints that those talks were held in private, pointing out that four county lawmakers were present to share information with municipal leaders.

"What was the alternative? Harley Doles making the decision on behalf of the town?" Neuhaus asked, to audience laughter, referring to the Monroe town supervisor.

Davis, his challenger, lives in Monroe, and he urged lawmakers to "give me and my neighbors an opportunity to decide our future."

"We must consider this an opportunity to look to the future," he said.

Michael Sussman, the civil-rights attorney from the Town of Chester, recalled representing dissident community members in Kiryas Joel for about 20 years and suing once on their behalf to try to dissolve the village, which he said violates the constitutional separation of church and state. He argued that forming a new town for the Satmar Hasidim would perpetuate that constitutional breach.

"Creating a new religious town echoes the terrible precedent set 40 years ago when the village was carved out of the Town of Monroe," Sussman said.

Supporters of the separation argued that it presented Monroe residents with a brighter future by liberating town government from Kiryas Joel's voting blocs and sparing Monroe-Woodbury School District the fate of East Ramapo School District in Rockland County.

Other speakers countered that Palm Tree's creation will affect towns other than Monroe and that the Legislature vote effectively will decide the outcome, if both Kiryas Joel and United Monroe leaders rally voters behind the town proposal in a referendum.

John Allegro, one of United Monroe's leaders, reversed that argument by saying that just eight county lawmakers could deny more than 20,000 control of their town's future by voting against allowing a referendum. He compared that to a vote by Doles and three other Town Board members in 2015 to let Kiryas Joel annex 164 acres.

"A decision by eight of you not to allow a vote will tie Monroe to KJ forever," Allegro said.

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