Ugly tone mars meeting amid questions of legality

News Northtowns Bureau

A legally questionable meeting of the Grand Island Town Board relating to the controversial development of a Wilson Farms convenience store turned ugly Wednesday night (June 12, 2002) when one board member profanely accused another of pandering to a group opposed to the store.

The meeting, held in Town Hall, was designed for attorney John J. Ottaviano, special counsel to the town on the project, to meet with board members to review the developers' revised environmental document for the location at Stony Point and Ransom roads.

Announced only by a flier posted late last week in the town clerk's office for a "Town Board workshop executive session," the meeting appears to have violated the public Open Meetings Law because it was not legally advertised.

Nevertheless, three members of Concerned Citizens of Grand Island, which opposes the Wilson Farms development, were invited to stay.

What they heard was a heated exchange between Councilmen Daniel F. Robillard and Kevin M. Rustowicz concerning whether the town could accept the environmental document and move into the public-comment phase of the proposed development.

Rustowicz has been vocal against accepting the document as complete. A board vote is expected on the issue Monday.

"We're trying to do the right thing here. We're trying to follow the law, and it became personal to a few people," Rustowicz said.

He and Kim Tetreault, leader of the Concerned Citizens group, said they heard Robillard cursing and making vulgar comments while implying that Rustowicz was being influenced by the group.

Robillard does not dispute that he got carried away.

"Some sharp words came back at me, and I just let him have it and I was wrong," Robillard said. "I stopped at all their houses (after the meeting) and apologized. I think it should be behind us."

Tetreault and Rustowicz confirmed that Robillard apologized.

"In my 21/2 years in public office and in my years following government, this is the most offensive display of behavior by a public official that I've ever seen," Rustowicz said. "I felt it was very offensive to Kim and to all citizens, and it was dishonorable."

"This is a black eye for not only us as individuals and the Town Board. It's a black eye for the citizens and government of Grand Island."

The legality of the meeting is also at issue.

Rustowicz said he thinks that the meeting should have been open and that he had a discussion with Ottaviano on Monday about opening it up.

Nevertheless, the news media were not notified of the meeting, and it was not publicized as an open session.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said the meeting might have violated the Open Meetings Law.

"It seems, at the very least, the public was misled," Freeman said. "If you see it is advertised as an executive session, you stay home and watch "Friends.'

"If you were not essentially dissuaded from attending, you might have shown up."

Government boards do have the right to hold a closed meeting for purposes of obtaining legal advice, he said.

In this case, the board subsequently opened the meeting but never advertised it as such.

"It sounds as though initially the Open Meetings Law would not have applied, but it seems as though it evolved into a meeting," Freeman said.

Neither Marla DePan Brown, attorney for the developers, nor Ottaviano could be reached to comment Thursday.