Resident/town employee says board flouted Open Meeting Law

Meckle says attempt to remove her from board of Waste Management District violated state statute

NEWFANE — A town employee serving in the capacity as a resident has charged that the Selectboard recently violated Open Meeting Law when they voted to remove her as the town's representative to the Windham Solid Waste Management District Board of Supervisors.

The Selectboard took this action in an unwarned executive session at a special board meeting on Sept. 26, said Shannon Meckle, the resident who serves as the town's administrative assistant.

The decision “was discussed and decided at a meeting that was for an entirely different purpose, held on a day I wasn't present,” Meckle said in a letter to the Board, which she read into the record at the Oct. 2 regular Selectboard meeting.

According to state law, “No formal or binding action shall be taken in executive session,” except for the negotiation of real estate purchase or lease options.

The statutes that address evaluations or dismissal actions against employees are clear: Decisions must be made in open meeting, and the employee has a right to a public hearing.

“I was removed without warning or explanation,” Meckle said.

At the Oct. 2 meeting, Selectboard member Marion Dowling told her colleagues, “I was very, very surprised” to learn of the decision, which was made in her absence. “I was shocked. How did this happen? I don't consider this part of a commitment to open meeting laws,” she added.

Points of disagreement

Selectboard member Mike Fitzpatrick said the decision was justified because the WSWMD representative is “a volunteer position [and] Shannon's getting paid for fuel or whatever.” He added, “everyone else has done it as a volunteer position and that's the way it should stay, I guess.”

Board Chair Carol Hatcher further defended the Board's decision by accusing Meckle of including time spent at WSWMD Board meetings as part of her work hours. Meckle disagreed: “I'm on salary, it doesn't apply.”

“I put in mileage once in five years,” said Meckle, who explained she asked for fuel reimbursement and included time spent at the WSWMD offices on her timesheet one time only - when she had to go there “during regular working hours.”

The WSWMD Board of Supervisors meetings generally happen in the evening, after Meckle's regular work hours have ended.

Hatcher said Meckle had submitted mileage reimbursement requests numerous times. Meckle denied this, and invited Hatcher to examine her timesheets.

“No, I'm not looking,” Hatcher said.

Upon Meckle's asking, Hatcher, Fitzpatrick, and Board member Chris Williamson all admitted none had examined her timesheets for mileage charges, and they instead relied on hearsay to determine Meckle had submitted numerous mileage claims.

'Behind my back'

Regardless of whether Board members believed her, Meckle said, they could have spoken to her instead of removing her from the position. Nobody, Meckle said, asked her to stop submitting mileage reimbursement requests. “So, how could I speak to it if I didn't know it was an issue?,” she said. “It was done behind my back.”

Hatcher told Meckle the incident was a “misunderstanding.” Meckle disagreed.

Hatcher offered to go into executive session to discuss it further.

“No, I don't want it in executive session. There's no need for it,” Meckle said.

Hatcher and Fitzpatrick told Meckle the Board raised the issue because a member of the community brought it to their attention. “But they didn't talk to the whole Board about it,” Fitzpatrick said.

“It doesn't matter. If they talk to one Board member about it, then you go into a secret meeting to talk about it, that's not legal,” said Meckle.

“It's not a secret meeting,” Fitzpatrick said.

“It wasn't warned. If there was an issue, it needed to be brought out into an open session so that at least the public had a right to know what the hell you were talking about,” said Meckle. “And they didn't.”

“But it's a personnel issue,” said Fitzpatrick. “Do you want that brought out [into open meeting]?” he asked.

“It's very clear in the law,” Meckle said. “If you're discussing someone who works here, you have to give them the right to come in and speak for themselves [and] I was not given that right.”

“Even though you're a volunteer?” Hatcher said.

“It doesn't matter,” said Meckle, who explained that either way - whether the Board treated this as a personnel or a volunteer position, “it shouldn't have been in executive session.”

Audience speaks up

Audience members at the meeting spoke up to question the Board's decision, and to defend Meckle.

Doris Knechtel, one of the town's listers - and former administrative assistant and representative to the WSWMD - said Meckle “has the respect of [the WSWMD] Board and of Bob Spencer,” the district's executive director.

“It's important for the town to be properly represented there,” Knechtel said, and noted the Selectboard should have looked into the complaint - and the person who made it - “before you [made] a decision like you did the other night.”

“I would caution overlooking the big picture,” said resident Ken Estey, which is, “Shannon's overwhelming contributions to the town of Newfane.”

Knechtel and Estey both expressed their concerns with the open meeting law violations.

According to state statute, “A person who is a member of a public body and who knowingly and intentionally violates the provisions [of Open Meeting Law] [...] or a person who knowingly and intentionally participates in the wrongful exclusion of any person” covered under these statutes, “shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be fined not more than $500.”

At the Oct. 2 Selectboard meeting, Dowling made a motion to restore Meckle to her position as representative to the WSWMD Board of Supervisors.

It passed unanimously, minus Board member Gary Delius, who was absent.

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