McHugh shuts down public comment about Facebook flap

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

Councilwoman Marissa Tutay, third from left, attempts to discuss controversial Facebook comments at the Sept. 8 town board meeting, but was not permitted to speak by Town Supervisor George McHugh. Courtesy of Facebook

COEYMANS — Town Supervisor George McHugh was at odds with several members of the public and two town board members at the Sept. 8 town board meeting over whether comment should be permitted about a Facebook post by a town political page.

The issue arose over statements on the “What’s Up, Coeymans” Facebook page commenting on the arrest of a man charged with forcible touching of four underage girls at the Mosher Park Pool.

“The supervision and accountability lies with the parents and those hired to operate the public pool and look out for the safety and welfare of the pool patrons,” according to one statement from “Coeymans Conservatives.” “And the victims are children and deserve to be protected from sexual predators.”

Additional comments targeted a former school board member who ran for the town board in last year’s election.

Several comments in the same vein were posted in the thread under the Coeymans Conservatives and Town of Coeymans Republican Committee Facebook pages.

McHugh leads the Conservative committee. He denied posting the statements and claimed he does not know who did. Republican Committee Chairman Joel Coye did not respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t know who posted it,” McHugh said in an interview. “It was no one on the town board.”

The statements led to anger from numerous town and village residents over whether the comments were appropriate.

Resident Melissa Ashby, of Ravena, attempted to bring up the issue at the Sept. 8 town board meeting in the public comment section of the meeting.

“I’m here about the comments that George [McHugh] made on the…” Ashby began, and was cut off by McHugh.

“Ms. Ashby, this is not town business and if you look at the rules, which are right in front of you, it says comments must relate to the current agenda,” McHugh said. “It must relate to the current agenda items being discussed at the board meeting or legitimate town business. Facebook comments are not legitimate town business.”

Ashby responded, “Not even when you are talking about the town and village and its children?”

McHugh reiterated that her comments were not permitted. Ashby argued the subject was pertinent to the town.

“I feel like it has to do with the whole town,” she said.

McHugh would not let her continue. “I’m glad that’s how you feel, but that’s not the way it is,” he said. “This is not Facebook Live, we don’t bring Facebook here.”

Town meetings are held at the town hall and are also broadcast on Facebook Live.

After two residents stood to speak about unrelated issues, Town Councilwoman Marissa Tutay, who is running on the Republican and Conservative ballots in the November town election, attempted to bring the issue up again.

“While I realize this isn’t town business, I do feel like I need to say something regarding the comments that you are responding to,” Tutay said. “The only concern there should be regarding that incident is for the children of the town. It saddens me tremendously that what happened to those children was brought into a political game between two entities. I will tell you that the page you are mentioning was not the Conservative Party so whoever did say that, it was not representing those of us who are in the Conservative Party. I want that to be very clear.”

Tutay claimed she did not know who made the original comments, but said the most important issue is the mental and physical well-being of the children who were involved in the alleged incident at the pool.

“I am kind of disgusted that it became a political game and it was on both sides,” Tutay said.

McHugh cut off the back-and-forth discussion between Tutay and Ashby.

“This is non-town-related,” McHugh told Tutay. “If you would like to have this conversation with anyone in the public, take it out to the public when we are done with this meeting. We can’t violate our own rules and then ask to enforce them.”

Town Councilman Stephen Schmitt then raised the same issue and, unlike the councilwoman, was permitted to speak at the meeting, but the audio on Facebook Live went silent and the camera focused on the town insignia behind the judge’s desk.

Schmitt later provided his comments that were not broadcast to residents watching online.

He spoke of the “horrific events that took place recently at the village pool” and said that while he is a registered Republican and has been endorsed by the town’s Republican and Conservative committees, he is not a member of either committee.

“I had no involvement in the comments that were made on the ‘What’s Up, Coeymans’ page, nor was I consulted prior to the comments being made,” Schmitt said. “What happened to these victims should not be used for political gain.”

Schmitt went on to say that the comments were ultimately removed from Facebook.

“Contrary to what some members of the community might think, each and every board member has their own opinion, their own voice, and quite frankly, we’re not afraid to use it,” Schmitt said.

He also said he has respect and admiration for the town board.

After the meeting, McHugh said town meetings are conducted in compliance with a set of rules.

“There are eight rules that are adopted by the town board every year,” McHugh said. “One of the rules is we do allow public comment, but the public comment has to be related to a legitimate town topic. If someone wants to come to a town meeting and just be disruptive and talk about politics, they are not going to be allowed to do that. We are not going to waste the town board’s time or perpetuate that political theater.”

Village Trustee Caitlin Appleby, a Republican who also attempted to discuss the topic at the meeting, was also not permitted to speak. She later argued the issue is town business because of where the Facebook comments originated from.

“I wanted to question how that was not related to town business. He [McHugh] is the face of both of those committees, and yet he doesn’t want to talk about it,” Appleby said. “It’s not town business but these two entities are related to the town, they are supporting the candidates that are sitting on the board. The supervisor is the face of both of those committees, so I felt it was appropriate to address it in that situation.”

There is no proof who wrote the Facebook post in question, and Appleby said that is part of the problem.

“There is no transparency,” Appleby said. “If he [McHugh] didn’t write it, then he knows who did.”

Deputy Mayor Nancy Warner, a Democrat, attended the meeting and said she was shocked at how it was conducted.

“I am appalled and I am ashamed of our town government because we have people who come to the village who say things that we may not agree with or we may not be happy with, but by God, we have to give them the common decency and respect to listen to them,” Warner said. “And that didn’t happen here.”

Resident Sara Pruiksma-Rizzo, who ran for town board on the Democratic ticket last year, said the public comment section of the meeting was particularly distressing for her after witnessing a POW/MIA ceremony earlier in the meeting by VFW Post 9594.

“The very fact that this happened at the same town board meeting I find really upsetting,” Pruiksma-Rizzo said. “Honoring these veterans, these prisoners or war, they fought for our freedom and our freedom of speech and for us to live in a free society, and for the public to not be able to comment on something that is so real and so disturbing, it is just unfathomable to me.”

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