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Mystery letter author identified as town clerk

Newfane officials address distress over anonymous mailing

NEWFANE—The author of an anonymous letter sent to some voters prior to the Aug. 9 vote on the Town Office building has been identified, following a public complaint to the Selectboard and some distress from board members over suspicion that the letter originated from within town government.

“I sent the letter,” Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli told The Commons. “I sent it as a citizen, not as a town official.”

As Cristelli saw it, “nobody had enough information” after the Selectboard’s final bond vote hearing on Aug. 1, and that prompted her to create the mailing to advocate voter approval for funding for the project.

Board members — none of whom received the mailing — were caught off guard and took issue with the mailing, particularly its anonymity.

Voters subsequently rejected the measure, 286–226.

During the Aug. 15 Selectboard meeting, board member Marion Dowling said a resident asked her to lodge a complaint about the letter, which expressed concern — and, board members said, incorrect information — about the then-impending bond vote.

The letter, with no return address, was signed, “Concerned citizens of Newfane.” Those who received the letter got it just before the bond vote, and the copy Dowling had was in an envelope postmarked Aug. 5.

Cristelli’s mailing included a chart detailing financial, structural, and functional considerations for all three options: keeping the current town offices and fixing issues piecemeal, performing a full renovation of the current town offices, and selling the building and constructing a new one.

The introduction states: “As property owners and taxpayers, the undersigned strongly support voting in favor of the town office building bond vote.”

Dowling said the existence of this letter was a surprise to her — she never received one at her house. None of her colleagues on the board reported getting this letter, either.

This letter raised a few concerns for board members.

Dowling said the letter contained factual errors, and she said that it didn’t reflect what the board discussed at the Aug. 1 public hearing on the town offices.

The letter also incorporated the logo the town uses for the new building — a logo the board paid Cotton Design to develop, he added.

Board Chair Todd Lawley noted that the mailing label on the envelope resembles those issued from the town offices, for example, on property owners’ tax bills.

Although anyone can come to the town offices and request a voter checklist, “they wouldn’t get it in sticker form,” Administrative Assistant Shannon Meckle said.

“I’m catching wind that some of this [mailing preparation] may have happened here,” Lawley said. He continued, “And if it did, I have a definite problem with it.”

“We try our best to be transparent with everything we do here,” Dowling said, adding, it would be really great if “people who write letters and use quotes from us...have the respect of the citizens of Newfane to sign the letter they’re sending.”

“This is sort of a behind-your-back, undermining behavior,” Hatcher said, adding, “we’ve given our citizens plenty of opportunities to come forward” with concerns about the town offices plans.

“The public has a right to speak, but sign your name to it,” said board member Gary Delius, adding, “if you are going to send something like this, please make sure we get a copy!”

A personal project

Cristelli said she paid for the office supplies and postage herself.

“I came in on my day off to fold the papers and stuff the envelopes. I was concerned the Selectboard didn’t present the facts well,” Cristelli said.

The anonymity, she said, was the result of a well-intended personal project done in haste.

“I thought I had someone else on board, and I wanted to get signatures,” Cristelli said, but at the time she printed the letters, she had only herself, she said.

Not wanting to delay the printing and mailing with the upcoming bond vote, she printed out 700 copies of the letter without any names attached, she said.

“I forgot to get the signatures,” Cristelli said, and did not want to sign, by hand, 700 pieces of paper.

“I had no intention to be underhanded,” she said, “but as a taxpayer and office worker, I thought people needed to get the facts and figures.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #371 (Wednesday, August 24, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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