ANCRAM—The Town Board has voted in favor of forming a Committee for Respectful Behavior, but did not seem to agree on qualifications for who would serve on it.
At the May 19 Town Board meeting, board members tackled many topics related to the ongoing issue of how to deal with instances of disrespectful behavior among the town’s elected and appointed officials, employees, volunteers and residents.
The matter initially came to light back in January, when Jack Lindsey, resident and Town Ethics Board chair, addressed the board about numerous incidents of “dismissive, sometimes hostile or inappropriate treatment of women who serve the town or come to the Town Hall for constituent services…”
The incidents were related to him in conversations over the prior year and a half and the improper treatment came at the hands of certain men presently serving the town, Mr. Lindsey said. His presentation was the subject of a January 27 story in The Columbia Paper, “Witnesses call out Ancram officials,” which can be found at www.columbiapaper.com.
An investigation into the claims ensued, with the Town Board enlisting the services of Attorney Elena DeFio Kean with the Hinman Straub law firm in Albany to look into the matter. Ms. Kean started her investigation February 12 and concluded it with the submission of her findings report April 21. She interviewed 20 people—all were town employees, elected officials or volunteers on one or more town committees.
Ms. Kean’s 13-page report revealed “no violation of law or ethics,” but did find that Mr. Lindsey’s January statement “did accurately convey the feelings and sentiments of multiple females [who] provide services to the Town of Ancram.” The individuals’ feelings of being dismissed or treated disrespectfully “are genuine and sincere.”
Though the comments and letter contained some information that was less than accurate, it has “resulted in an exposure of concerns felt by a significant number of individuals that have dedicated true time and energy in town government for its betterment.”
Councilwoman Bonnie Hundt, who along with Councilwoman Amy Gold and an ad hoc committee worked on developing a Draft Respectful Workplace Policy (code of conduct) and Qualifications for the Committee for Respectful Behavior, told the board the code of conduct should be added to the town’s employee handbook and the Committee for Respectful Behavior (CRB) would serve to hear and look into these types of complaints without the need to “spend any more money on attorneys.”
During discussion about the qualifications for a CRB member, Councilman David Boice said he did not know how “a balanced” committee is defined. “What does that mean? Full-time, part-time? It seems weird.”
Ms. Hundt said the qualifications were just suggestions with the goal or aim of finding people. She said an email would be sent out to see who wants to be on the committee.
“Anyone who applies for a committee has a reason to be on a committee,” said Mr. Boice, adding, it would easier to have someone completely neutral and from out-of-town. “Somebody’s always got something,” he said.
Ms. Hundt disagreed, “I do not think everybody has an agenda, but they do want to help.”
Councilman Hugh Clark said, “I’m looking for a half dozen diamonds…” He said CRB members should be competent and known for not always going along with the crowd. Returning to the concept of “balance” he said, male, female, formal education and experience in the “school of hard knocks,” natives and newcomers should all be represented. He said he had no problem with folks being from Ancram.
Similarly the councilmen had concerns about the Draft Respectful Workplace Policy.
Mr. Boice spoke about the idea that everyone should already know what respectful behavior is. He said keeping an open mind is important but that based on one’s position in life everyone has a different perspective. “We need to be careful how we do this, we can’t afford to make a mistake.”
The councilman later said some of the language in the policy is ambiguous such as “acceptable” and “malicious” behavior. He asked how these terms are determined and how they can be “nailed down.”
‘I do not think everybody has an agenda, but they do want to help.’
Councilwoman Bonnie Hundt
Town of Ancram
He said the draft policy refers to “gossiping or spreading rumors” as inappropriate behaviors, yet the letter read by Mr. Lindsey, from which all this discussion stems, “breaks with these rules.”
Mr. Clark confirmed the need for such a policy and called the draft, “a fine start.” He went on to address concerns about specific wording in the draft policy, such as the use of the word “negative” numerous times without definition; excessive yelling, “When does yelling become excessive?” he asked. He questioned whether the text can be made compatible with the employee handbook. He said he was “leery” about the CRB acting as an investigator should a complaint arise, because competent, professional investigation requires skills such as asking open-ended questions and obtaining information instead of exchanging information—skills which many people are not familiar with.
He said the draft needs some “thoughtful refinement.”
Councilwoman Hundt questioned why the councilmen had not circulated their objections or concerns before the meeting so she and Ms. Gold and the ad hoc committee could have addressed them. She said because no one had said anything about the draft earlier, she thought other board members were okay with it.
“The report said we have a problem,” said Ms. Hundt, who asked the councilmen to come up with some other suggestions for how to deal with it.
Town Supervisor Art Bassin said Ms. Hundt, Ms. Gold and the ad hoc committee had developed the draft policy and now it would be a good idea to form an impartial committee to “massage it” and take it to another level. He said if the board adopted the policy now it would be “eliminating the most important thing a committee can contribute… Until we have a committee we do not have the collective wisdom we need.”
Everyone with the exception of Councilwoman Gold, who was absent, voted in favor of the following resolution to create a 5 to 7-member Committee for Respectful Behavior (CRB) to recommend to the Town Board:
*A Code of Conduct for Town of Ancram elected and appointed officials, employees, volunteers, and residents to guide respectful behavior in all town activities and communications
*A process and procedure to report, receive and investigate complaints from anyone who perceives they have been treated with disrespect by a town official, employee, volunteer, or resident in violation of the Code of Conduct
*A process and procedure to report the results of the investigation, recommendation and subsequent action, if any, to the complainant, Town Board and other affected parties
*The content, timing, and audience for a series of training programs that introduce the new Town Code of Conduct and which focus on verbal and nonverbal communications (including examples of disrespectful behavior) to supplement the mandatory annual NYS Harassment Training.
The board’s next meeting is Thursday, June 16, starting with two public hearings at 6:45 and 6:55 p.m.
To contact Diane Valden email email@example.com