The word was quiet and would have gone unremarked as the Montgomery Town Board made their routine motion to pay the monthly bills—had the town supervisor not exploded a moment later.
“Councilwoman (Sheryl) Melick, you nay all bills to pay. You’re not naying your health insurance to be paid,” said Town Supervisor Rodney Winchell. “Why are you here? Besides the health insurance, why are you here? Are you naying your health insurance too? Your paycheck?”
As the councilwoman attempted to respond, the supervisor continued, leaning into his microphone as he shouted over her.
“You’ve been in a coma for ten years here, besides your health insurance,” Winchell continued. “All I’m saying is that you say nay to pay the stack of bills that’s six inches tall. You don’t want to pay the bills, but you want to get your health insurance and do nothing here.”
Faintly under the supervisor’s shouts, the councilwoman attempted to explain her vote was a protest regarding a specific bill, but eventually stated she was not going to argue with him and the supervisor moved on to the next agenda item.
The incident took less than three minutes, but left the room stunned. Some residents later felt compelled to apologize to the councilwoman for the supervisor’s “inappropriate” behavior.
Meanwhile, confusion remained over what exactly had instigated the trouble.
“The issue is he went into a five year contract on his own, without board approval,” said Councilwoman Melick, after the meeting on Sept. 19. “The law is that you have to be board approved and I’m not passing the bills until we resolve it.”
The trouble began in February, as town board members were looking over the bills to be paid. Mixed in with the rest was an invoice for Marlin Business Bank, for $1,135.09. This bill was the first installment of a five year lease.
The following month, they were blindsided with an invoice from New York Security Systems for $27,960. They discovered that both the lease and the invoice were to pay for the installation of 30 security cameras and related equipment in and around the town government center on Bracken Road.
Apparently, the supervisor had previously approved both and already had the cameras and equipment installed.
“We knew nothing about it until we saw the voucher,” said Councilman Mark Hoyt. “We didn’t know what Marlin Bank was and weren’t getting any straight answers.”
Hoyt said when he couldn’t get any information from the supervisor, he began making phone calls. Eventually, he found that the supervisor had signed a five year lease for security cameras with Marlin Business Bank last October, with monthly payments of $946.26 to begin in 2019. That means the lease will cost $56,775.60, not including late fees and insurance payments.
Melick said she initially broached the problem with the supervisor in an executive session, but “he just screamed and yelled at me there.”
“So what am I going to do? I’m not going to argue with you. I’m just not going to approve it,” said Melick.
That single syllable protest has become a source of mounting frustration for the town supervisor, who explained on Monday that he feels the elected officials in the Town of Montgomery have done nothing for the last ten years, and have left him to run the town on his own while they enjoy free health insurance.
“The one thing you don’t smell here is sweat,” said Winchell.
Winchell said that there had been no working cameras in the town hall when he took office last year and he felt it was a necessity.
“It’s a safety issue. There have been three arrests since they were installed,” said Winchell. “The police department needs some kind of tool.”
“I’m not saying I’m against the cameras,” said Melick. “I’m not against the security. I’m against the fact that he did it not board approved. I mean, it’s illegal really, when you get right down to it.”
According to Town Law §64(6), town contracts “shall be executed by the supervisor in the name of the town after approval by the town board.”
Additionally, the NYS Association of Towns stated that “a town official, on his or her own, has no authority to install a recording device to monitor town property.”
They made the statement earlier this year in their publication, Talk of the Towns, going on to explain that Town Law gives the town board control over town property, so “a majority of the town board may decide to install video surveillance on town property.”
The Association of Towns urged caution before making the move, citing potential constitutional issues, conflicts with state law and collective bargaining agreements, and impacts on FOIL. In addition, the board members are to know where they are installed.
“It puts the board in a bad position,” said Councilwoman Cindy Voss. “I don’t think security cameras are bad. It’s the way it was done.”
Town records show that New York Security Systems installed the cameras and submitted two invoices. The first, for 18 indoor cameras and related equipment, was paid by the town on March 25, 2019. The second was submitted to Marlin, in the amount of $41,470, for 12 outdoor cameras and related equipment. Essentially, rather than having the town purchase the other half of the equipment themselves, Marlin purchased it and is leasing it back to the town.
“Why in God’s name would you do that?” asked Councilman Hoyt, stating that the town is “wasting money” with the contract.
The lease means that the town is paying an additional $15,305.60 over a direct purchase, again, not including late fees and insurance payments. As of Sept. 6, the town has paid Marlin Business Bank a total of $8,459.04.
Supervisor Winchell said the “interest rate is high” because it includes service for the cameras, as well as upgrades over the term of the lease.
“You don’t want to own anything. They don’t understand that,” said Winchell.
Town board members were told they could buy out of the lease early—if they paid approximately $71,000. That’s nearly $30,000 more than the original invoice from the security company.
Winchell said that even if they bought out of the contract, the town still wouldn’t own the equipment and the company would pull it all out.
“It’s like peeling an onion. Each layer you peel back, the worse it gets,” said Hoyt.
Supervisor Winchell explained that they used a grant for part of it and the contract was for the rest. They were “piggybacking on a county bid”, so he believes the town received a good deal and he didn’t need to go through the process of going out to bid.
Town board members disagree and point out that the supervisor still needed board approval before doing anything.
“You can’t just take the money out of the account,” said Melick.
Supervisor Winchell said he talked to the board about cameras prior to moving forward, but admitted that he didn’t wait for board approval and didn’t see it as a “big deal.” He pointed out that the town attorney at the time, Austin Dubois, looked over the contracts and watched him sign it.
“If that’s what they have, put me in jail,” said Winchell. “The attorneys looked at it. I’m cool. It helped the police department.”
Meanwhile, there are allegations that it also helped the supervisor, as according to NY Open Government, New York Security Systems made a donation of $1,000 to Friends of Rodney Winchell, the supervisor’s re-election campaign, the same day the company’s bill of $27,960 was paid by the town.
“I honestly don’t know what to do. It’s a mess,” said Hoyt. “How much other stuff has also gone on that we don’t know about yet?”
Winchell is unconcerned about the controversy, saying there is “a lot of stuff” that he signs, and sometimes there are motions, and other times there aren’t. He is trying to fix things at town hall and move forward and said the town board members aren’t helping him.
“They can stick it. I don’t care. The bottom line is, it’s ridiculous,” said Winchell. “I’d do it again. For what these tools have done for the town, I’d do it again.”