The Greenburgh Town Board, led by Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, last month secretly adopted a building use policy for 2016 that bars use of Town Hall by civic associations and local political parties that have been using the Town Hall auditorium without incident for decades.
The policy was adopted at a hastily scheduled “special” meeting of the Town Board at 11 a.m. on December 22, 2015, when the public was not in attendance.
The board at that time unanimously adopted a resolution approving a new building use policy – but, as often happens when the Town Board holds its meetings without the public present, the policy itself was not attached to the resolution, and it is not known whether board members voting to adopt the policy ever saw it.
Under the new policy, “use of rooms at Greenburgh Town Hall is restricted to the conduct of Town Hall business and use by Town Board appointed Boards, Commissions, Committees, and Councils.”
The change means the Town’s Democratic Party, which last fall criticized Mr. Feiner and the board for not having a building use policy in place, will no longer be able to use Town Hall for its annual conventions. The Town’s Democratic Party has for years used the Town Hall auditorium for its annual conventions, attended by over 100 elected and appointed district leaders from throughout unincorporated Greenburgh and the Town’s six vlllages.
The change also bars the Council of Greenburgh Civic Associations from using the Town Hall auditorium to stage its biannual candidate debates sponsored by the Westchester County League of Woman Voters. The CGCA has used the Town Hall auditorium for that purpose for years because it allows for such debates to be broadcast on the Town’s cable television channels. The CGCA was also critical last fall of the Town’s not having a building use policy in place.
As a result of the Town’s having adopted its new policy, the CGCA may hold its debates in other town-owned buildings, but because they do not come equipped with television capabilities, they won’t be televised.
Ironically, at the same time the Town Board adopted these new policies, Mr. Feiner issued a press release, without regard to the new policy, inviting the public to use the television studio at Town Hall anytime it wants to record its own cable programs.
The Town also rents a portion of its space at Town Hall to a private credit union, which also continues to have continue use of Town Hall for itself and for its customers. The new policy doesn’t affect the credit union.
Also barred under the new policy from using Town Hall are civic groups that for years have used the auditorium and other rooms at Town Hall to hold their annual and/or quarterly meetings. These groups may be able to use other rooms – just not rooms at Town Hall.
The new policy states that “Residents may request to use public rooms at Greenburgh Parks and Recreation, Theodore D. Young Community Center and Greenburgh Public Library facilities pursuant to the general rules contained herein and the specific rules and regulations for the facility.”
The policy was adopted in the wake of criticism of the Town Board from civic groups and the Town’s Democratic Party – after Mr. Feiner and Town Clerk Judith Beville gave free use of Town Hall last October to an anti-Israel group to hold a rally and fundraiser and then, after hastily adopting a building use policy that forbid any new use of the building except uses that had already been agreed to, then admitted having allowed the same anti-Israel group to hold yet another meeting and fundraiser at Town Hall in November. After a pro-Israel group threatened to hold another protest, the group moved its meeting from Town Hall to the Ethical Culture Society Building in White Plains.
Police Chief Chris McNerney, who favored enactment of a building use policy, said the protest at Town Hall in October cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in police overtime; in addition, Town Hall closed early that day so police could conduct a sweep to make sure the premises were safe.
The executive committee of the Town’s Democratic Party, at its regular monthly meeting in late October, blasted town officials for not already having a building use policy in place since most municipalities and school districts in the United States have building use policies that in such circumstances generally restrict use of taxpayer financed facilities to residents and/or groups in which 50% of more of the group’s members are taxpayers.
Civic groups, such as the CGCA, also criticized the Town for not having a building use policy in effect. The CGCA pointed out, however, that Mr. Feiner had a history of using his position as town supervisor to prevent use of Town Hall by individuals and groups he did not like or with whom he was feuding politically.
Thus, for example, because of a feud he was having with members at the time, Mr. Feiner in 2002 refused for many months to allow the Town’s Antenna Review Board to meet in Town Hall. He eventually relented though and the group was eventually allowed to use the building.
Municipalities may adopted building use restrictions without running afoul of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution so long as the restrictions are both reasonable and content neutral. Mr. Feiner was criticized last fall because the interim building use policy that was adopted barred a pro-Israel group from using Town Hall while allowing the anti-Israel group to meet a second time.
After the controversy this fall over building use, the Town Board made clear that it would adopt a new building use policy, to be effective January 1, 2016. But it is not clear why the Town Board chose to adopt its new policy in secret, without allowing for any public discussion or debate on what the policy should or should not allow.
The Edgemont School District, for example, held several public meetings this past fall to discuss a minor amendment to its own building use policies, which followed extensive public discussion several years ago when it adopted more sweeping revisions to its building use policy.