(Editor's note: The first "Valley" in this editorial incorrectly says the Dec. 30 vote on the settlement was not in the meeting's minutes. That was based on incorrect and incomplete information provided by town Clerk Patty Gillmett, who later proved that the vote had been in the minutes all along. The Valley also went too far in criticizing the board as a whole. For explanation of these two errors, follow the article links at right.)
It's Sunshine Week, when we call attention to openness in government as an essential and too-often shrugged-off element of a democratic republic. Therefore we'll start out with a Mountain and a Valley related to that theme.
VALLEY - to the Harrietstown Town Council for effectively covering up what may or may not have been a minor scandal, in which the town's insurance company made a $30,000 settlement payment to dismissed bookkeeper Brenda LaPierre, who had filed a claim that Supervisor Larry Miller sexually harassed her in the workplace. We don't presume he's guilty, but it's worrisome that the council's vote to approve the settlement did not make it to the meeting minutes initially or when the board approved the minutes two weeks later. Minutes of that vote only appeared recently, after the Enterprise asserted the Freedom of Information Law. The town attorney assured us that it was probably just an oversight and that "the intent certainly wasn't to hide anything."
We hope town officials appreciate that the public has a hard time believing that.
Votes must be recorded for the public record - period. If this one was knowingly not logged in order to protect the town's top administrator from embarrassment, that only heaps on shame. It might be more a breach of public trust than the original offense - if there even was one.
It's important to note that the settlement ended the case without any wrongdoing attached to Mr. Miller, but a settlement, by its nature, leaves ambiguity about who did what. And that ambiguity is what's worming its way into people's minds and casting doubt - especially when we consider things like the missed minutes.
Mr. Miller has been known and respected as an honest, upstanding public servant for more than 16 years on the town board. People haven't forgotten that and would give him the benefit of a fair bit of doubt, but there sure is a lot of doubt here - much of it self-inflicted through a lack of open government. We wish he and Ms. LaPierre would explain what happened. He probably would be better off in the court of public opinion.
One factor at play here is that the board members had agreed, in the vote to settle Ms. LaPierre's grievance, not to speak of the matter. That was a mistake. No elected official should sign away his or her honesty like that. It's a wall of distrust against the townspeople. In government, transparency is the best policy.
MOUNTAIN - to a generally positive response by local government bodies we cover to a new state law requiring them to make available documents that are set to be on the agenda at an upcoming public meeting. Some of those that didn't already post documents online are looking into that possibility, which is the best way forward these days. Meanwhile, they're providing paper copies to those they expect want them. It's much appreciated, and necessary.
MOUNTAIN - for Tupper Lake optimism. Since the Adirondack Club and Resort got its Adirondack Park Agency permit, things have been looking up in Tupper. Hometown pride and hope was bubbling over at the chamber of commerce's recent annual dinner, resort developer Tom Lawson is beautifully renovating a downtown building, Big Tupper finally got to be open for some excellent skiing, the town's cross-country ski trails are getting a lot of positive attention (they really are brilliant, by the way, and totally free; we highly recommend them), and then actor Paul Giamatti showed up to film part of an upcoming movie, "Lucky Dog." (Tupper Lake is playing a small town in Quebec.) And it also doesn't look like there'll be any flooding this spring. This is great. We look forward to a good run of Tupper Lake momentum.
MOUNTAIN - to U.S. Rep. Bill Owens for picking Saranac Lake as the location to hold a House Agricultural Committee hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill - one of only four hearings nationwide and the only one in the east. Most places in his district have more farming than Saranac Lake, but that wasn't the determining factor; nor was is, as some suggested, a plot to pick an out-of-the-way place so as few farmers as possible would attend. The story of how the hearing site came about is interesting.
As Rep. Chris Gibson told us, this particular hearing fell to the Democrats to plan, and Rep. Owens, a Plattsburgh Democrat who is on the Agriculture Committee, got the nod. But he went out of his way to reach across the aisle to the only other New Yorker on the committee, Rep. Gibson, a Republican from Kinderhook, to locate the hearing in a place where, as Rep. Gibson put it to us, "both of our farmers can attend." The line between these two congressmen's districts runs right down the middle of Saranac Lake, so they held it here - it even ended up being on Rep. Gibson's side of the line. Now that's bipartisanship and New York pride. Good work, guys.
MOUNTAIN - To what so far looks like a robust showing of candidates for the 113th and 114th Assembly District races. It's great to see democracy alive and well.
MOUNTAIN - to a debate we're organizing for Saranac Lake village trustee candidates tonight at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Harrietstown Town Hall, 39 Main St. We've already gotten a few questions submitted by the public, and we expect more at intermission during the debate. The first half will consist of candidates' self-introductions and then questions from a media panel. The second half will have questions submitted by members of the public and then closing statements. We expect the whole thing to last between an hour and 90 minutes. All four candidates will take part: Paul Van Cott, Barbara Rice, Mark Gillis and Jeff Branch. Since three of them are new to village politics, you'll want to Come on down.