Yates Legislature fails to ban weapons from County Building; County Clerk, staff respond

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express
Yates County Clerk Lois Hall addressing the County Legislature, urging them to pass a local law banning dangerous weapons from the county office building. Recent increases in angry and violent visitors to county offices, especially the DMV, have raised concerns for the safety of public employees.

PENN YAN – Following a public hearing at the Yates County Legislature, a proposed local law banning dangerous weapons from county owned buildings failed to win enough votes to be enacted. The vote failed 7-6 with legislators Carlie Chilson, Jim Multer, Dan Banach, Terry Button, Leslie Church, and Rick Willson voting against the resolution. One legislator, Edward Bronson, was absent.

In a Sept. 2 memo to the legislature, Sheriff Ron Spike stated that with no local law prohibiting firearms or dangerous weapons in the county office buildings or county facilities, "should someone with a concealed carry handgun permit visit the County Office Building, and not want to voluntarily give up the weapon's possession, there is no local law to prevent the firearm from building entry. Additionally, should someone have a long gun in his or her hands, or on a sling over their shoulder as an example, there is no law that prohibits it from being possessed inside the County Office Building... Neither is there a local law to prevent other weapons, i.e. certain sized knives etc. from lawful entry. All the surrounding counties to Yates (Ontario, Seneca, Schuyler and Steuben) have such local laws, and all very similar in text as the draft of the proposed one for Yates."

Opposing comments from legislators and the public ranged from fears of the cost of added security personnel and equipment, to calling the ban a "slippery slope," endangering second amendment rights.

Supporting comments came from several legislators including Tim Cutler who said "You can't have a plan before the law." Patrick Killen said there is no legitimate reason for anyone to have a weapon in the county building, and the ban would prevent angry visitors from "an easy means of violence." Bonnie Percy stated that she knows that pistols have been brought into the County Clerk's Office. One of the clerk's staff confirmed that she has had pistols pointed at her over the counter on more than one occasion.

One public commenter of particular note was Tom Sheppard, of Dundee, who described via Zoom his witnessing of the mass shooting at the Schuyler County Offices in nearby Watkins Glen Oct. 15, 1992.

That was when John T. Miller, 50, of Ohio, who had a more than 20-year history of arrests in Schuyler County for non-payment of child support, gunned down four women employed by Schuyler County Social Services. 

Using a a 9 milimeter semiautomatic pistol, Miller killed Florence Pike, 60, of Watkins Glen; Nancy Wheeler, 48, of Montour Falls; Phyllis Caslin, 54, of Watkins Glen; and Denise M. Vanamburg, 28, of Watkins Glen.

According to AP reports at the time, Pike was the supervisor of the child support unit, which collects court-ordered child support payments for dependent children living in the county, Caslin was an investigator for the unit, while Vanamburg and Wheeler were simply clerks. After the shootings, Miller was confronted in a hallway by two sheriff’s deputies, and tried to leave by a stairway but was blocked by a state trooper and a Watkins Glen village police officer. According to police, Miller turned back to the hallway, spoke briefly to the deputies and shot himself in the head.

It is the memory of that terrible event so close to Yates County, the number of recent incidents at the Yates County DMV that have resulted in police removing angry, threatening people, and the complete absence of any means of security the prompted Yates County Clerk Lois Hall to pen the response below.

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In response to the public hearing and vote held in the Yates County Legislature today, Sept. 13:

A public hearing was held today for Resolution 352-21. This resolution was to allow Yates County to enact a local law to "Ban the Possession of Firearms and Dangerous Weapons in Buildings Owned, Leased or Operated by Yates County."

Listening to all of the public comments, I learned that people are concerned about their 2nd Amendment rights, the SAFE Act, and the cost to the county.

As I understand, the sheriff submitted a memo indicating that the cost could be partially offset. Also the sheriff cannot arrest someone unless there is a law in place to do so.

I believe in the second amendment, and I also believe the SAFE Act has not stopped the unnecessary killing of innocent people. What I do not understand is how anyone could put a price on a human life and justify not having security in this building because it costs too much!

There is a portable MAG (magnetometer) that people use for the DWI Victims Impact Panel for DMV and the Treasurer’s property tax auctions to keep everyone safe. The DMV sees these people every day.

If this law had been approved and passed then we could go forward to set policies and procedures to enact, with the expertise of the Sheriff, to go forward to keep our staff and the people of this county safe.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not called to assist in the DMV with a disgruntled or angry person. My staff has been threatened, screamed at, had documents thrown at them, and called every name in the book. I have been doing this for 18 years and it is getting more and more challenging to deal with every day. It amazes me that the few legislators that represent the good of this county cannot see what I have been telling them forever. The clerk’s office has had issues as well with people not wanting to be responsible for their actions. We have had instances with people with knives and pistols in the office, and have had to tell them to leave. We call court security and the Penn Yan Police now more than ever.

Where does this all end? Someone getting hurt or killed? Then how much will it cost this county?

Who will take responsibility then? The six legislators that voted against this?

I have spoken to a number of others that work in this facility and the concern is there with them as well.

The Yates County Clerk Staff

The Yates County DMV Staff