‘Monumental decision’ on Village trash plan made ‘with almost no opportunity for public input’

To the editor:

We’ve been residents of the Village of Pelham for just over seven years; when we moved here, I found it frustrating that the board of trustees did not communicate well about their activities, plan and resolutions. It was nearly impossible for a resident to have any idea what was being done unless they attended every board of trustees meeting, or watched the videos posted afterwards.

During the election campaign when Mayor Chance Mullen and other trustees were first elected, a part of their campaign was the statement that they too found this bothersome and would work to improve the situation so that residents would be better informed. That was in early 2017.

It’s now more than four years later, and it doesn’t appear that the situation has changed. As I write this letter on Sept. 7, the village website has:

  • Agenda for June 22 work session: “WS3 – Discussion: In-House Garbage Collection.” This discussion did not occur. It was deferred to a special session scheduled for July 6. The agenda document for this meeting appears to have been published approximately 23 hours before the meeting began.
  • Agenda for July 6 special work session: “WS1 – Discussion: In-House Garbage Collection.” The correct title of this item should have been “Creation of a Sanitation Department.” The agenda document for this meeting appears to have been created on July 1 and published on the website shortly thereafter. I’m unaware of any other communication to the village residents of this “special work session” being convened (and I’m subscribed to the village’s mailing list). A packet of information about the projected costs of the proposed department was provided to the trustees at the beginning of the meeting. It was apparent that none of them had seen it prior to that point.
  • Agenda for Aug. 10 regular meeting: “10. Resolution Authorizing the Issuance of Additional Debt Service to Finance the Cost of Refuse Trucks.” This agenda document appears to have been created just under six hours before the meeting and presumably published to the website shortly thereafter.

That’s it. There are no minutes posted of these meetings (the most recent published minutes are from the June 22 work session, 2.5 months ago). There are no documents showing an analysis of this proposal: Expected costs of acquisition and maintenance of the equipment, expected costs of hiring and providing staff to operate the service, expected costs of insurance and other additional expenses, plans for providing service in the event of equipment failure, and comparison against current costs for the service provided by Oak Ridge. During the July 6 meeting, it was stated that the annual cost of the sanitation department (not including amortization of the purchase of the vehicles) would be approximately $900,000 per year and also stated that this would be $200,000 to $250,000 below the cost if the services were obtained in the “private market.”

In addition, none of the village board’s resolutions are available online either. I’d expect the document archive on the website to include all of this information, since they are all digital documents and don’t require scanning for publication. In 2021, and also during a pandemic when access to the village hall is limited, providing only in-person access to documents is not acceptable.

After viewing the videos for the July 6 and August 10 meetings, it’s clear that the board of trustees is trying to “do the right thing” for the residents of the village, but in this situation we’ve gone, in just five weeks, from an initial proposal to a commitment for the creation of a sanitation department, including authorization to spend nearly $1.4 million to purchase refuse collection vehicles. For a village of our size, this is a monumental decision, and it was made with almost no opportunity for public input.

In my opinion, if the village cannot afford the staff expenses to communicate with its residents about the board’s actions, with enough advance notice for residents to participate, then the village cannot afford to take any of those actions. It is not acceptable to expect that one or more village residents will be watching the website constantly to see if new documents are posted, and then to disseminate that information to the rest of the residents so that they can have any chance at all of participating in their local government… but that’s the only choice we have today.

As a resident who would like to be engaged but cannot commit the time to attend every meeting of the board of trustees, I’d like to see:

Agendas published to the mailing list, in addition to the website, or at least a notification to the mailing list when a new meeting
agenda (or a revised meeting agenda) has been published to the website. This includes notification when the actual agenda of a
meeting did not follow the published agenda (see the next item). Agendas should be posted at least one business day before the meeting, but of course more notice would be appreciated.

All documents that will be considered by the board of trustees when making a decision on a resolution should be published to the website in advance of the resolution’s appearance on an agenda, and linked from the agenda (the zoning board of appeals already does this, as do the planning board and the architectural review board).

After any public board of trustees meeting (executive sessions excepted), an email to the mailing list with a one- or two-sentence description of the outcome of each agenda item that was discussed during the meeting. This is not a substitute for the meeting minutes, but would give residents an opportunity to be aware of the “in flight” projects before it is too late to participate, since the meeting minutes are usually published two to three months after the meeting itself.

All resolutions, even those that were not authorized, published to the website after the meeting where a decision was made on them.

I hope that at least some of our trustees agree with these ideas and will help to ensure changes are made to allow more public participation, and if these changes cannot be made, that major decisions are slowed down in order to provide opportunities for input.

Kevin Fleming

415 Eighth Ave.

As 70% of local gov’ts fail to post timely minutes, legislature passes bill mandating minutes, transcripts or recordings on websites