Yates officials attempt to reconcile security and public access

John Christensen

For the second month in a row, the Yates County Planning Board met behind locked doors April 26, despite state law requiring all such meetings be open to the public. And for the second month in a row, an applicant who was to appear before the board gained entry only by chance.

This puts all decisions made by the board at those meetings in jeopardy of nullification if challenged, and the county in danger of official censure.

At past meetings, held at 7 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month in the closing room of the county building, a member of the staff would open the front doors for the public as they approached.

At the very least, a doorbell is present that rings in the closing room for those who wish to enter. Some even resorted to knocking on the window of the closing room to have a member of the board let them in.

But in recent months, the meetings were relocated to the county auditorium in the basement, due to the number of board members and applicants overcrowding the closing room.

The bell does not ring there, and the staff attendant has not been present. Some members of the board have taken turns letting the public in, at least until the meeting begins.

After that, any later arrivals had to depend on someone leaving the building if they hoped to attend. On this evening, one applicant could not get in until the meeting was more than half over.

At the end of the meeting Don House, a District II County Legislator and non-voting member of the planning board representing the legislature, said he understood the seriousness and would bring it up to the legislature.

When asked to comment via e-mail, County Planner Shawna Bonshak deferred to County Administrator Sarah Purdy. In a telephone interview, Purdy apologized for the inconvenience, saying that the county was in a situation they did not anticipate.

The worker who normally staffs the door has been out on leave, and the county is unable to pay overtime for the day staff to cover that duty. She stressed this point several times.

“The money simply isn’t there,” said Purdy, but added, “The reality is we’re not the same sleepy community we used to be, and we can’t leave doors unlocked and unattended at night.”

Purdy was quick to point out that it was at only two meetings where access was an issue.

She asserted that she fully understands the seriousness of the open meetings law, and that they are doing their best during a staff shortage. She spoke of meetings she had skipped in order to mind the door herself.

“Had I known this was an issue that night, I would have been at the door myself. I was upstairs in my office,”  she said. Purdy assures the public the county is now in a position to recruit a new staff member and the position has been advertised. She finished by saying the chance of a repeat occurrence “would be slim to none.”

Referrals to the Planning Board

Unless noted otherwise, the referral was approved unanimously.

• Steven McMichael of Jerusalem for a special use permit and site plan review to construct a 14-unit age 55+ townhouse complex on Central Avenue in Keuka Park.

• Aaron Ray Martin of Torrey for an area variance for a 6’ solid fence within the right of way at 2811 State Route 14.

• Susan Atkisson and Brian Figuliette of Jerusalem for a special use permit and site plan review to construct and operate a seasonal retail business, Keuka Coffee Roasters, at 2792 Rte. 54A.

• Jim Schnitzler of Penn Yan for an area variance to install his Radio Shack sign from the Lake Street Plaza at 103 Main St. with some modification. Approved 7-3.

• Theresa Wagaman of Penn Yan for a use variance to convert a single family home back into a two family.

• Robert Schwarting and Carol Worth of Milo for minor subdivision and re-subdivision of property at 542 East Lake Road.

• Town of Jerusalem for a zoning text amendment to permit museums in the agricultural-residential district.