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Witnesses call out Ancram officials

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ANCRAM—It wasn’t the first time the Town Board had heard about instances of disrespectful behavior by men in town government toward women, but this time it was a man doing the talking.

Jack Lindsey, Town Ethics Board chair and co-chair of the Ancramdale Neighbors Helping Neighbors Association, came before the Town Board in-person at its January 20 meeting to discuss how the town can improve its harassment training—a subject that has been brought to his attention for several years.

Reading from a statement, Mr. Lindsey highlighted a long list of local women, past and present, who have played pivotal roles in making the “town function efficiently, thoughtfully and with care.”

He said the “town has enjoyed a long period of progressive, efficient and productive leadership” under the current administration, but noted “when problems arise it is important to address them head-on with thoughtfulness, fairness and accountability.”

Though he was not speaking in any official capacity, Mr. Lindsey said he had received 15 phone calls over the past year and a half as Ethics Board chair and had numerous additional conversations with both men and women Ancram residents expressing concern about “dismissive, sometimes hostile or inappropriate treatment of women who serve the town or come to the Town Hall for constituent services…”

The improper treatment has come at the hands of certain men presently serving the town, he said.

Some of the residents who spoke to him “experienced the behavior directly while others observed it being loaded upon others; several on a running basis as third party during town or committee meetings.”

Mr. Lindsey said, “Ancram has a significant number of residents who feel that there is ongoing, unfair and disrespectful treatment of women.”

Also, he said he was troubled by the number of times women have said to him, “‘They’ll listen to you, you’re a man.’ That should not be.

“… Most alarming,” said Mr. Lindsey is that most people are not willing to file formal complaints with the Ethics Board to investigate “because they are afraid of retaliation, ridicule or bullying. This perception that some individuals serving the town are causing people to be reluctant to speak out publicly [about] this bad behavior is mainly what has brought me here tonight.”

When he brought these concerns to town leadership earlier, Mr. Lindsey was told they were isolated cases blown out of proportion by two or three women. He said this false impression took hold because many other women experiencing the same misogyny have been afraid to come forward. He said “disrespect, abusive and dismissive behavior toward a number of Ancram women is a wider ongoing problem.”

Mr. Lindsey read from a letter he received from a woman applicant to the Planning Board who had her application to renovate a barn “derailed” by someone associated with the Planning Board who “gave me bad information” then publicly denied it, treated her with disrespect and wasted her time.

Mr. Lindsey also referred to concerns expressed about why a current town volunteer is still being allowed to serve after his past inappropriate misogynistic comments led to a complaint which cost the town tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to investigate.

Mr. Lindsey noted that as a volunteer of 15 years, if his comments or behavior caused the town to pay unnecessary legal costs he would expect to be removed from his position immediately.

Later in the meeting Town Conservation Advisory Council Chair and former Planning Board Chair Jamie Purinton, attending via zoom, said she had witnessed the bullying and dismissive behavior from town leaders against women. She said she had definitely been overlooked and dismissed by Town Board members. The bad behavior has caused numerous women to not want to serve the town.

She said the behavior would not be tolerated in most work places and is not the norm among the hundreds of male contractors she works with as a landscape architect. During her service to the town as Planning Board chair, she was “disciplined and taken to task for things that were far less” than she has seen done by her male counterparts. She said it is “crystal clear” to her that as chair she was treated far different from a man in the same position. She said apologies need to be made to some women who have endured a lot of pain and trouble due to the way they were treated.

Jane Plasman, who serves on the Ethics Board and the Roe Jan Library Board of Trustees, talked about her observations at town government meetings when officials speak to others in a “condescending and patronizing manner.” She said such behavior is hurtful and disrespectful and infuriating. Other witnessed bad behaviors included, being “shushed,” cut off, talked over or laughed at.

She recounted a phone conversation with a town official in which she was yelled at in a menacing voice and “assaulted with a barrage of very profane language.” Had the conversation been in person, she said, “I might have been afraid.” She said the person has since apologized.

Local resident and photographer B. Docktor, recounted three instances many years ago in which she asked for an application to volunteer for the Ancram Fire Company. In all instances an application was promised but never received. “What should a person make of this?” she asked, noting she has retreated from volunteering in Ancram.

B. Docktor is an occasional contributor to The Columbia Paper.

The harassment training required of everyone who serves the town took place last November following the inappropriate comments made by a town volunteer mentioned by Mr. Lindsey and coincidentally an incident reported in the February 25, 2021 issue of The Columbia Paper (“Offensive email, then town seeks outside help”). The story reports that Councilperson Bonnie Hundt received an offensive email from Highway Superintendent Jim Miller in which she was referred to as a “bitch.”

The November harassment/sensitivity training was done online via Zoom. Ms. Hundt reported to the Town Board at a subsequent meeting that a gun somehow appeared on the screen at the highway department, where the superintendent and the crew were supposed to be participating in the training.

Both Mr. Miller and Councilperson David Boice said the long gun was a ceremonial weapon used to fire blanks by veterans on firing squads performing gun salutes at Memorial or Veterans Day events.

Mr. Miller said the gun is stored at the highway garage and Mr. Boice said one is also stored at the firehouse.

The incident was dismissed by the Town Board because “it was not a real gun.” Ms. Hundt wondered how other people at the training looking at the screen would know that.

In concluding his statements Mr. Lindsey proposed some improvements to how harassment training is conducted in the future.

He also asked the board to consider the formation of an Equality Council composed of interested parties to help guide the town and define a route to improve these concerns and to foster wider acceptance of diverse opinions.

He told the board that “by not aggressively answering these concerns, you’re jeopardizing the great and thoughtful progress Ancram has achieved in the last years under your administration and the much needed, vibrant contributions of the women in our community.”

Councilperson Hundt commented during the meeting that change is not easy, but the board needs to move in that direction. “Women want equal treatment not special treatment,” she said.

Supervisor Art Bassin said the meeting had provided a lot of food for thought and the matter would be discussed again at the next meeting.

The board meets again February 17 at 7 p.m.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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