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Villenova residents concerned about closed meetings

VILLENOVA — It was a shock to Villenova resident Tina Graziano to see eight vehicles in the town hall’s parking lot on Wednesday night, when the town board would normally hold their monthly board meeting.

A notice posted on the town hall’s door dated March 17, 2020 states that the town of Villenova offices are closed until further notice and that “there will be no public meetings until further notice” per Governor Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 state of emergency. “These vehicles belonged to the board members, lawyer, historian, clerk and highway superintendent,” Graziano told the OBSERVER. “I entered the building, wearing a mask, and was immediately told that I can’t be here and need to leave. The town supervisor stood up, without a mask on, and told me to leave.”

With four board members present, Graziano noted that the board did have a quorum.

The OBSERVER contacted the town of Villenova for comment regarding the apparent May 13 board meeting. Town attorney Donald Michalak replied by email and confirmed that the Villenova town board did meet on May 13 at the town hall for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting “taking into account social distancing-mask guidelines.” He said while all in-person public hearings are canceled, public bodies such as town boards may meet remotely right now; however, remote meetings are not required.

“Villenova and towns generally are struggling with how to conduct business during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly rural towns where there is a lack of or substandard internet, email, cell phone and no equipment and no experience or training for remote meeting,” he explained. “…The New York Conference of Mayors, in a guidance issued April 10, 2020, has concluded that public bodies may continue to hold public meetings, based on Executive Order 202.15 which prohibits in-person public hearings, but is silent with respect to in-person public meetings.”

Michalak added that there are differing opinions regarding this guidance but that he is unaware of any official ruling on this. “In speaking with other municipal attorneys my understanding is that some towns are continuing to meet in a public location allowing the public to attend, while some are continuing to meet at a public location but not allowing the public, some are skipping meetings, and some are meeting remotely, or partially remotely,” he said.

Although neither the April 8 nor the May 13 town board meetings were made available to the public via teleconferencing, Michalak told the OBSERVER that the Villenova Town Board has decided to schedule “a remote special meeting for Wednesday, May 27 at 7 p.m. by telephone conference, open to the public, with provision for recording, to be later transcribed.”

Graziano questioned why the May 27 meeting will be made available to the public, but earlier meetings were not. Furthermore, she said that neither the April 8 nor the May 13 meetings were advertised to the public. Typically, she said monthly meetings are posted on the town hall door and on the website; however, the only notice on the town hall is the March 17 one that states there will be no public meetings until further notice. “All the taxpayers have asked from this township is to be transparent and listen to our concerns,” said Graziano.

In a follow-up email to the OBSERVER, Michalak explained, “Only towns of the first class, generally those with a population of 10,000 or more, which the town of Villenova is not, are required to hold at least one meeting a month. When a town board, usually at the annual organizational meeting, sets a fixed monthly meeting, no monthly public notice need be given.” Villenova’s annual organizational meeting took place on Jan. 15, 2020, when it was determined that monthly board meetings would take place at the town hall at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month.

Michalak told the OBSERVER that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no public meeting in the town of Villenova in April or May. “It is expected this will continue and the June, and perhaps July, or further, monthly meetings will be canceled, pending developments,” he said. “In lieu thereof the town board will meet periodically by special meeting for which public notice is required.” The first meeting of this kind is the upcoming May 27 meeting.

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