Putnam Legislature Fires Counsel

Conflicts with lawmakers lead to dismissal

By Holly Crocco

The Putnam County Legislature kicked off the new year by relieving Legislative Counsel Clement Van Ross of his duties.

The attorney, who has been with the county for nearly 30 years, was serving a three-year appointment that extends through the end of 2017. To remove him from the position, the Legislature voted 8 to 1 to rescind the resolution in which he had been appointed. Only Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls) voted no.

“The Legislature collectively decided we’d like to pursue a different path for our legislative counsel,” Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson), who chairs the legislature, said after the Jan. 3 organizational meeting.

Nacerino gave no reason for Van Ross’ dismissal. “He served well for many, many years,” she said. “We have no disparaging remarks or negative comments.”

Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, center, and then-legislator Sam Oliverio, right, with Clement Van Ross, legislative counsel, left, at a meeting in 2013. (File photo by L.S. Armstrong)

Nacerino said she and Joseph Castellano (R-Mahopac), who is deputy chair, notified Van Ross several weeks ago that the Legislature planned to vote to dismiss him.

Van Ross did not respond to a request to comment, but LoBue issued a statement.

“The abrupt dismissal of Legislative Counsel Van Ross leaves a vacuum at a critical time when the Legislature is most in need of his expertise and experience,” she said. “We are indebted to him for his commitment to the charter, open and transparent government demonstrated by making available to the public the  Butterfield kease, the Tilly Foster negotiations and the $40,000 settlement with the former Commissioner of Health.”

Van Ross was sometimes at odds with the legislators and county administration. He said, for example, that documents such as the proposed Butterfield lease were public and should be released, which contradicted the position of lawmakers and county attorney’s office.

Van Ross was criticized by some legislators in September when a sixth revision to the then-proposed lease for the county to rent space at the former Butterfield Hospital site in Cold Spring stalled in committee.

The county has since approved a 15-year lease with developer Paul Guillaro to operate a 6,000-square-foot senior center in the Lahey Pavilion at the site. The total cost of rent, construction and other responsibilities associated with the project has been estimated at $4.5 million.

The newly seated Putnam County legislature. Paul Jonke (back row left), who represents Southeast, and Neal Sullivan (back row right), who represents Carmel, are new members.

During a Sept. 14 meeting, Van Ross said lawmakers were unable to vote on a proposed amendment to the lease, which included the addition of several words to a clause, because the proposal had only been received the day before. The proposal came to the county from a Cold Spring Planning Board meeting that had taken place two nights before.

“There’s a 48-hour notice that is required for legislators, and if the [Planning Board] meeting is on the 12th, and we’re meeting here on the 14th, it’s difficult to see whether the 48 hours has been met,” he told the lawmakers at the time. “I don’t see where that memorandum of change dated Sept. 13 is within the 48 hours.”

Therefore, he said, legislators would need to be unanimous in accepting the proposal for a vote, which they were not (LoBue voted no).

This determination by Van Ross left some lawmakers — already frustrated with the often-stalled process to approve the controversial lease — angered that they were faced with another setback.

“It’s an atrocity and I don’t believe that you’re correct, Clem, and I’m going to check that for sure,” said Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra (R-Philipstown).

“We’re splitting hairs with this,” added Nacerino, who added that Van Ross should have notified lawmakers they would not be able to move forward unless they scheduled the meeting a day later.

“We should have been advised, then, prior to everybody sitting here waiting for this meeting, and every legislator waiting for this meeting, and to move forward with something we thought we’d move forward with — and we should have been advised accordingly beforehand,” she said.

Legislator Carl Albano (R-Carmel) also expressed frustration.

“Clem, I wish we were advised of this because we’re wasting a lot of time,” he said. “We’re playing games. You’re wasting my time. I’m here tonight, I was here Monday; if there was a problem, our legislative counsel should have told us. Clem, we really have to start getting this right. Please advise us in advance. My time is very precious and I don’t want to waste any more time.”

Nacerino said the Legislature hopes to replace Van Ross by February. In the meantime, the county law department will advise lawmakers, she said.

6 Responses to "Putnam Legislature Fires Counsel"

  1. Ann Fanizzi   January 7, 2017 at 5:17 am

    The conflict with the lawmakers occurred in the midst of the contentious Butterfield matter because attorney Van Ross dutifully counseled the lawless legislators that they were violating the Charter. But aside from Legislator LoBue, most of the legislators, especially Albano, Scuccimarra, Nacerino and Castellano, adhering to a higher power, bristled at the inconvenience of adhering to their sworn duty to uphold the charter and retaliated by dismissing Van Ross.

  2. Tom Maxson   January 7, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    Clem Van Ross has served the people of Putnam County very well over his long tenure. He has advised the Legislature to respect the rule of law, and to provide public documents to the public, per the law. This is a chilling power grab by those on the Legislature who find the law to be an inconvenience that they can ignore. Every citizen of this county, regardless of party affiliation, should be alarmed by this unwarranted act.

  3. Kathleen E. Foley   January 7, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    This is very bad news for the taxpayers of Putnam County. Clem Van Ross consistently did his level best to make our secretive County Legislature follow the law, be transparent in their dealings and be accountable to their constituents. Members, including our District 1 representative Barbara Scuccimarra, did their level best to silence Mr. Van Ross. Now they’ve done finally it. I think we can imagine what it means when Chair Nacerino says that the Legislature decided “to pursue a different path” for their legislative counsel. Again, the only dissenting vote was Legislator Dini LoBue, who stands alone on the side of ethical, open government, working for the people of this County. Keep your eyes on this ball, Philipstown. I suspect it will only get uglier.

  4. Stephanie Hawkins   January 7, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    The removal of Counsel Van Ross is an embarrassing demonstration of forum-shopping by ignorant legislators, disdainful of laws designed to prevent them running roughshod and unfettered over the taxpayers of Putnam County. Taxpayers of Putnam County owe considerable gratitude to the consistent, intelligent, professional and deliberative counsel provided by Counsel Van Ross to all Legislators throughout his tenure. It is clear that without Counsel Van Ross, nearly all of our Legislators are ignorant of the laws, rules and processes that define reliable County governance. Too, taxpayers across the County should recognize the tireless advocacy and authentic representation of their interests by Legislator Dini LoBue. We are a sorry constituency that the rest of the Legislature lacks the intelligence and integrity of Counsel Van Ross and Legislator LoBue.

  5. Patty Villanova   January 8, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    Clem Van Ross fired? It should have been done a long time ago. No one, no matter how qualified, should be allowed to feed at the public trough for three decades. Any public official who is in a powerful position such as counsel to the Legislature needs to be scrupulously vetted on a yearly basis, especially when there are any number of hungry young lawyers getting out of prestigious law schools who would do a great job for a lot less money. I find it astonishing that not only the good people of Cold Spring but also legislator LoBue would object to getting rid of someone who for too many years was re-appointed unanimously by generations of politicians who had sworn allegiance to disgraced Senator Vinny Leibell. Maybe everyone has forgotten about that scandal.

    In any event, I have known the man, who is from Putnam Valley, for many years on a political basis. He is firmly connected to the county and state GOP establishment and an real insider with a lot of connections. When Leibell went to jail, Clem was still there to keep an eye on things in Vinny’s original stomping ground.

    Nothing to see here, folks — just Putnam County politics as usual.

  6. Anthony Merante   January 9, 2017 at 7:28 pm

    Interesting to see the political slants to the three commenters above, Foley/Hawkins vs. Villanova. Pick your viewpoint, folks! Ya’ think one of them is wrong?