Flower Hill weighs transferring planning powers to village board

Flower Hill weighs transferring planning powers to village board
The Village of Flower Hill is considering dismantling its planning board and giving its powers to the Board of Trustees. (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)

The Village of Flower Hill Board of Trustees heard arguments Tuesday night over a proposal to transfer planning board powers to the trustees, but the strongest voice against the idea came from one of its own members.

Trustee Kate Hirsch said she was completely opposed to the idea even though the trustees voted to disband the Planning Board last year.

The hearing took place months after Hirsch, a practicing attorney, filed an Article 78 petition, which seeks to compel a government agency or official to refrain from doing something it should not do. She alleged that village officials were working with St. Francis Hospital to assist in expansions into residential areas in one example of what she called in her petition “an unchecked monopoly in the Village for decades.”

In a July filing, Hirsch claimed that Ronnie Shatzkamer, the village’s administrator, refused to turn over documents requested by Hirsch in a series of Freedom of Information Law requests, and that she was aided in this by village officials, including village Attorney Jeffrey Blinkoff, and officials from St. Francis Hospital.

“Respondents’ refusal to turn over public documents is part of a wider plan by Shatzkamer, with the assistance and/or acquiescence of the Village and its elected and/or appointed officials (including Blinkoff), to conceal her own self-dealing,” Hirsch wrote in her petition.

The trustee further alleged that “Shatzkamer and the village secretly have been working with St. Francis Hospital and its legal counsel (Harris Beach, PLLC partners Jack Martins and Thomas Garry) to allow the hospital to expand its facilities into the residential part of the village.”

Hirsch cited a statement former state Sen. Jack Martins made at the village’s March board meeting that the hospital was in discussions with property owners on Oaktree Lane to acquire their properties at 150% of their market value.

“Presumably knowing that an expansion such as this would have immediate and very significant detrimental effects on neighboring properties and the Village as a whole and would likely be met with significant opposition, St. Francis and its counsel orchestrated with Shatzkamer to lay the foundation for the expansion before going public with the plan, omitting pertinent and relevant facts,” the petition continued.

Hirsch also noted that the village board voted to abolish the Planning Board in April 2019, shortly after a time when her evidence states then-Mayor Robert McNamara had visited a new administrator at St. Francis.

Hirsch wrote that on learning of the plan, she served seven FOIL requests on the village which “sought production of all documents relating to St. Francis Hospital and its contemplated expansion as well as documents relating to the abolishment of the Village Planning Board, which [Hirsch] believes was done to pave the way for the expansion.”

“In response to the one request relating to the Planning Board, Shatzkamer produced four records,” Hirsch wrote. “In response to each of the six separate and distinct FOILs pertaining to St. Francis, Shatzkamer’s response was the same: ‘No such records exist.’ In a follow up email Shatzkamer acknowledged that she took notes at a meeting with St. Francis and the village but claimed she could not find them; she did not specifically identify to which request the notes would be responsive … Knowing that records exist, [Hirsch] appealed Shatzkamer’s response and in a decision presumably written by Blinkoff and signed by the current mayor Brian Herrington, the Village endorsed Shatzkamer’s response and denied [Hirsch’s] appeal while simultaneously producing a trove of emails which confirmed that multiple meetings were had between the Village and St. Francis.”

“Notwithstanding the production of some documents by Herrington, the facts will show that Shatzkamer has violated her duties as the Flower Hill [Records Access Officer] to produce documents that [Hirsch] reasonably believes exist,” Hirsch wrote.

During the same period, Hirsch said, she received emails from an address identified as “Lucifer” that threatened to report her to the New York Bar Association and have her disbarred, with a later investigation conducted by Hirsch allegedly finding that the sender was resident Howard Miller, a former member of the village’s Planning Board. Miller said in a phone interview he was not informed of any investigation and would not comment further.

Shatzkamer said in an interview that all of Hirsch’s “allegations and accusations against me are untrue.”

“She filed a request for documents back in July, I turned over everything I had with St. Francis and shared information on other meetings on other topics,” Shatzkamer said. “Her assertion of a conspiracy is a political invention and is patently false.”

The administrator noted the discontinuing of the article, and said that “if there were anything truthful in it, we would be in court right now.”

Efforts to reach the Catholic Health Services of Long Island, whose system St. Francis is part of, were acknowledged but no response was immediately given.

Hirsch said in a statement to Blank Slate Media that she was considering refiling the article, which was discontinued on July 22, and that the statute of limitations runs out in October.

The law in question is Local Law K-2020, proposed but not voted on, which would transfer the powers of the Planning Board to the Board of Trustees. It would further and completely abolish the Planning Board in an addendum to last year’s action.

Before the board heard from the public on the proposal in a meeting held over Zoom on Tuesday night, Hirsch continued to voice strong opposition, summarizing her Article 78 action and explaining she had received counsel from the New York Conference of Mayors against abolishing the board.

“I’m 100 percent opposed to ratifying the action of transferring Planning Board powers to the Board of Trustees,” Hirsch said. “And I urge my fellow board members to reject this resolution, as it is not in the best interest of our residents, which is what we were elected to do.”

Trustee Frank Genese responded by saying that none of the “theory” was true.

“I guess maybe I’m stupid because I probably don’t know anything about this so-called secret deal,” Genese said. “You laid nothing on the table other than saying that there’s something suspicious going on. I’d like to know what it is.”

“There’s nothing going on, and you know that,” Genese said later. “There’s this huge conspiracy, which you by the way imply we’re all involved in, which is a pretty serious accusation. So I, and I’m sure everybody on the phone right now, would love to hear what this is.”

In a comment to Blank Slate Media on the day following the meeting, Herrington assailed the accusation against McNamara. 

“The fact that Kate would stoop to accusing deceased Mayor McNamara, who cannot defend himself, of corruption is abhorrent,” Herrington said. “Kate came to last night’s meeting and did not share one fact to support her case. That was because they do not exist. I have been transparent and posted to our website my communications with St. Francis’ CEO so everyone would know the facts about their communications with this Village. I would never jeopardize this village by selling out to any special interest. In addition, as was confirmed by the Village Attorney last night, the Planning Board would never have had jurisdiction over an application by the hospital because that power has always resided with the Trustees. This conspiracy theory is just nonsense.”

During the public comment section, Miller spoke in support of abolishing the Planning Board.

“I completely agree with the proposal on the table to ratify this,” Miller said. “Because we [the Planning Board] didn’t do much, we rarely were called to the table, we were underinformed at best. Most members barely met the requirements for continuing education through NYCOM. And so giving this to the board who already has enough on their plate, and is informed about what’s going on in the village and understands the residents’ concern, I think is a fair and appropriate way to plan for the future, anticipate needs, and not give any more incremental layers of government that we don’t need to spend money on consistent with many comments that have been made about how this village spends money. I personally think it’s incredibly fiscally prudent not to have another layer.”

Rhoda Becker, another former Planning Board member who said that she was a past planning commissioner for the Town of North Hempstead, said she was against the proposal.

“It should be a way of presenting problems,” Becker said. “I would like to go and reform it … And I would like to have it for future needs so that we don’t end up with moratoriums and stop progress when we should advance forward.”

Resident Robert Sideman voiced agreement with Becker, desiring a planning board to have “checks and balances” against the Board of Trustees.

“Currently, many villages in Nassau County and throughout New York State have a planning commission,” Sideman said. “The reason why they do amongst many others is that there is a fundamental foundation of democracy we all live in that … checks and balances are critical.” Resident Jolie Pataki said she was undecided on the matter and didn’t feel she was informed enough on the issue, but that she desired transparency.

“I’m very concerned about actual transparency, I’m very concerned about, you know, not feeling I can trust people who are in a position to make decisions that affect my life,” Pataki said. “But, you know, I, I’m really not sure how I feel on this particular issue.”

Flower Hill’s Board of Trustees will next meet on Monday, Oct. 5, at 7:30 p.m., with no further information on livestreaming yet provided.

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