The firestorm over Town Supervisor Paul Feiner’s efforts this past weekend to manufacture evidence to deny Edgemont residents the right to vote on whether to incorporate continues to grow.
The Edgemont Community Council last night unanimously passed a resolution formally condemning the Town’s efforts to “manufacture objections” to the incorporation petition “through use of trickery and deceit” which it said “violates the First Amendment rights of Edgemont residents to petition their local government for the right to choose their form of local government.”
In an extraordinary effort to show how angry and appalled they were at the Town’s actions, all 15 ECC directors at last night’s meeting took the unusual step of actually affixing each of their signatures to the resolution.
Mr. Feiner yesterday admitted on CBSNews2 that he used taxpayer money to hire the private investigators, but denied instructing them to trick residents into signing the “objections” – even though one such “investigator” was caught on a resident’s home security camera pretending to be someone retained by the town seeking merely to “verify” a signature, when in fact the “investigator” tried to get the resident to sign a pre-printed form “affidavit” of “objection” falsely stating that the person had been misled into signing the petition.
Other residents have come forward to say they were misled into signing the fake “affidavit” and were furious town officials would stoop to such tactics.
Mr. Feiner meanwhile told CBSNews2 that all such “affidavits” obtained by his private investigators will be accepted by him at a public hearing to be held tomorrow night on the issue of whether to certify the incorporation petition – unless those residents who signed come forward to say they were tricked. Mr. Feiner also announced “rules” for the hearing in which no one would be allowed to speak for more than three minutes. Thus, under Mr. Feiner’s rules, anyone who wants to show he or she was tricked into signing an “objection” will get only three minutes to make his or her case.
Mr. Feiner initially denied over the weekend knowing anything about private investigators being used or what they were saying, and said it was all the work of Robert Spolzino, a former appellate court judge that the Town had recently retained to advise Mr. Feiner on how to conduct the public hearing on whether to certify the incorporation petition.
Jeff Sherwin, the head of Edgemont’s incorporation committee, then called on Mr. Feiner to fire Mr. Spolzino, which prompted Mr. Feiner to admit that hiring the private investigators was his own idea.
ECC president Bob Bernstein said there should be an independent investigation into what Edgemont residents are now calling “Affidavit-gate.”
“The use of taxpayers funds to hire private investigators to trick residents who signed the incorporation petition into now signing phony objections looks to be an illegal use of taxpayer money to violate First Amendment rights,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Paul Feiner’s lawless conduct warrants an immediate independent investigation by law enforcement.”
“An independent investigation is needed to determine who in fact hired the private investigators, how much they were paid, who prepared the pre-printed affidavit, and who instructed them on what to say,” Mr. Bernstein said.
“Having already been found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of a church, for which unincorporated Greenburgh is paying a $6.5 million settlement – the largest such settlement in U.S. history — one would think Mr. Feiner would be more careful before embroiling the Town in yet another violation of constitutional rights,” Mr. Bernstein said. “The only difference this time is that the entire town instead of just the unincorporated area will be liable for the damages he’s causing.”
Former Dobbs Ferry judge Herb Rosenberg, a longtime advocate for Greenburgh’s six villages, warned Mr. Feiner over the weekend that his actions would “inflame tensions with the villages” because what he did was “plainly unconstitutional, a suppression of the First Amendment’s provisions for the right to petition a government” for which the entire Town, including the villages, might be liable for money damages. Mr. Rosenberg added that “the Second Circuit has approved punitive damage awards against local governments for violating constitutional rights.”
One resident tricked into signing appeared on the CBSNews2 report, said it never occurred to him that his local government would try to trick him like this, and that his support for Edgemont’s incorporation is now stronger than ever. Another Edgemont resident who had an encounter with one of Mr. Feiner’s “investigators” appeared on camera and said he and other Edgemont residents were just “fed up” with Greenburgh’s government. Another resident posted on Facebook, “If the choice between self-governance and the filthy Greenburgh political machine wasn’t clear to anyone yet.”
Mr. Feiner’s use of “private investigators” first became known on Friday evening when residents reported getting visits from individuals claiming they were either from the Town or retained by outside counsel for the Town purporting to “verify” that individual who had signed the incorporation petition had in fact signed. One alert resident saw a copy of the pre-printed affidavit, snapped a photo of it, and sent it to his neighbors so they could see that this was an attempt to manufacture objections to the petition.
Another resident, Eliana Weissman, managed to capture the entire visit from the investigator on her newly installed home security video – and it was that video which went viral and ultimately made it to CBSNews 2 and other New York City media outlets.
And while Mr. Feiner initially denied knowing anything about the use of “private investigators,” it turned out the “private investigator” captured on video was an Edgemont resident who held anti-incorporation meetings with outspoken opponents of incorporation at her home that Mr. Feiner would almost certainly have known about since the woman made clear in writing at the time that she was not allowing anyone in favor of incorporation to attend.
Mr. Feiner has scheduled for this Wednesday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m. a public hearing on the issue of whether the incorporation petition satisfies state requirements.
Written objections to the petition are supposed to be filed with the Town at that time and by state law, Mr. Feiner is supposed to rule within ten days after the close of the hearing on whether the objections are sufficient to warrant a ruling by him not to certify the petition.
The hearing will be held not at Town Hall, but at the Multipurpose Building at Anthony Veteran Park.
Mr. Feiner’s strategy appears to be intended to drag out the incorporation battle for as long as he can and to use tax dollars make it more expensive in the hope that those in favor of incorporation will ultimately lose interest.
Mr. Feiner has already signaled his intention to drag out the public hearing for as long as he can – state law allows him to continue it for up to 20 days after it commences on April 5. State law gives Mr. Feiner up to ten days after the close of the hearing to render his decision, but Mr. Feiner has already signaled his intention not to certify the petition so that proponents of incorporation will have to get a court ruling to force the Town to certify the petiion and hold a vote.
Mr. Feiner’s tactics come on the heels of a series of failed efforts on his part to try to generate opposition to incorporation. First, Mr. Feiner had hoped to get neighboring communities like Hartsdale to oppose incorporation. That backfired when Hartsdaie residents demanded that Mr. Feiner come up with a plan to sell back services to Edgemont, if it incorporates, in order to minimize the amount of any lost revenue. Mr. Feiner had warned that Edgemont’s incorporation could potentially lead to a loss of $17.5 million in town revenues.
Mr. Feiner next tried to warn residents who depend on the Theodore D. Young Community Center that Edgemont’s incorporation would leave them without needed funded for the programs there. But a meeting last Tuesday that was intended to encourage residents there to file objections seemed to fall flat when residents kept asking why the Town would not instead try to negotiate with Edgemont to preserve the funding – and town officials would not answer.
The EIC meanwhile said any loss of funding to the community center was a problem of the Town’s own making since the center provides needed services to the entire town and should therefore be paid for town-wide – a situation that town officials could correct with the stroke of a pen.
Finally, Mr. Feiner arranged for the NAACP to host an anti-incorporation meeting at Seely Place School, but that effort fizzled after the ECC agreed to sponsor the NAACP’s meeting and the NAACP agreed to let both sides be represented.