Consider the phrase “there are two sides to every story.” There can be some truth in that idea sometimes. But not always. If you read that a gang attacked an old lady walking down the street, there are probably two sides to the story although generally we don’t worry ourselves too much with the gang’s side of the story. If we learn that the leader of the gang is the son of the governor, and the governor described the incident as a harmless prank, that fact might be interesting but it doesn’t change the essential fact that a mugging, not a prank, occurred. If we later learn that the old lady whipped out a can of mace and a cane and beat the gang to a pulp, even that wouldn’t change the essence of the story: it’s still a mugging.
I think this analogy helps understand this case. In this analogy, I am the old lady. The gang is the government of the town of Stuyvesant. The similarity between a gang and this town government is that both are groups of people acting together to violate the law. If the town is not like a street gang, then the town board can go on record as opposed to the video-ed threat of physical violence, support for that threat by another official/employee online, theft of political signs, against public calls to "move out of town" by official/employee, documented, frequent pre-dawn surveillance. The town of Stuyvesant has made no attempt to guarantee the rule of law in this town, no attempt to assure residence that lawlessness by government officials and employees is not tolerated.
This analogy, the street gang thing, as dramatic as it may sound initially, is the best way to understand how it came to be that I did nothing wrong yet ended up with simultaneous planning, zoning, assessment and criminal proceedings, was threatened with physical violence, denied the perception of fire protection, and my house was put under surveillance by town officials. Racial / ethnic bias emerge in a couple of points in the story.
In 2003 my family moved from Brooklyn to Columbia County, then in 2004 we settled into our current home in Stuyvesant Falls. Our house is an old farmhouse built in 1790 on 15 acres set more than 1000 feet from the nearest neighbor in an agricultural district.
In 2005 I started Glencadia Dog Camp, a dog boarding facility for New York City dogs. The dogs stay in the barn next to our house and enjoy the open space of the country. In 2009 I found out that I was supposed to have a site plan review by the planning board to operate a business out of my home. I submitted the site plan and was unanimously approved without condition. At no time during the first four years that I operate the business did I have any trouble with any neighbor or with the town government.
The previously relatively benign relations with the town changed in November 2009 a few weeks after the town elections. The election of 2009 may or may not be critical to everything that followed. Furthermore, we do not need to know all the details of how and whenGerry Ennis, ZEO, began to interact and encourage complaints to determine that Ennis, acting in his official capacity, overstepped his authority. In other far more substantial instances of businesses violating zoning rules, of residents complaining about much louder noise, or of residents reporting multiple buildings constructed without permits, Gerry Ennis, ZEO, took no action. In my case, Ennis immediately violated a number of rules and laws and took drastic action, highlighting the threat to imprison me before we ever spoke on the phone about the matter.
First, I was charged with loud, unusual noise. When that charge seemed to be impossible according to the laws of physics, the charged morphed into a claim that I created too many jobs and employed too many people for my zoning permit. Officials trolled the internet for things I said and distorted the clear meaning of my statements to try to close my business for creating too much prosperity. Sadly, this charge is also not true. I wish that I could hire more people. I could create the work. I’m not allowed to do hire more people by town law. Next, I was accused of misrepresenting the nature of my business when I went to the planning board in 2009. When that seemed to be an unsustainable accusation, I was charged with not handling dog waste in an appropriate way. This charge seems to be based on the mistaken observation of horse manure used as fertilizer. None of these charges are true and there is no public interest in pursuing any of these charges. I mean, really, even if they were all true, who would care? But they aren’t true. I did nothing wrong.
As I will argue, we are here because the members of the government of the town of Stuyvesant, elected and appointed, conspired to intimidate and attack me in order to stop me from exercising my constitutional rights, to stop me from investigating the systematic wrong-doing occurring in the town, to stop me from publicizing the rampant abuse of authority in town, and to send me a message not to participate in local politics. I had simultaneous planning, zoning, criminal, and assessment battles with the town and appear to be denied fire protection. I was denied due process. Various proceedings were routinely stacked against me. I was effectively ambushed in bad faith negotiations. My house was put under surveillance. Extraordinary and coordinated efforts by numerous town officials were required to file criminal charges against me based on perjury. Neighbors were encouraged to submit coordinated and false statements to the town government for the purpose of harming me. These false and coordinated statements were presented at various public town forums in an unfair way. A member of the town board threatened me physically.
I was attacked by the town government as a whole with the full knowledge and approval of the supervisor, Valerie Bertram. Not only did I do anything wrong, there was never a shred of credible evidence that I did do something wrong at any time. Moreover, officials of the town threw procedures and fairness to the wind in their determination to punish me.
Why? Why all this trouble? I tried to settle and did everything the town asked me to do, did every test, built every structure, respond to every attempt to settle even when I suspected another ambush, spent every dollar they asked me to spend. Since they wouldn’t show any evidence that I did do something wrong, I went out of my way to prove that I did not do something wrong, although that is not how the American system of justice is supposed to work. I borrowed and spent and showed good faith.
There was one small inappropriate payment in 2009 but in general the motive for this harassment was not, it seems, to extract money from me directly. Rather, like the gang beating up a witness to another crime, the main motive was to stifle my political activities and set an example of the power of bullying in town. Creating a climate of fear and intimidation was part of a strategy of maintaining authority with few questions that allowed the clique in power to abuse their authority to their own benefit, as they have done for years. They were going to lean on me and make me pay through the nose. Get out of town or shut up, to paraphrase the fire chief.
In terms of local dynamics, officials felt free to throw all the powers granted to the town by the state at me because I was the kind of person who doesn’t matter to the officials in charge and to their system of maintaining power. I was not born in Stuyvesant. Former New York City residents, parents of an adopted African child, foreign wife, Jewish last name, politically active in the opposition: we, my family and I, stood out. I was fair game.
Also, official knew, as I did not, that when it comes to enforcement of ethics for local government in New York State, no one is on the case. The foxes are guarding the hen house and there is no watchdog.
If the possible motives I mentioned are not in fact the reasons for the sustained and broad attack, then the other side can explain how we ended up where we were. If not who I was, where I came from, what my family is like, or what I did politically, then why? Why was I attacked? There is no good reason for this campaign against me. Other people who are not from Brooklyn or don’t have black children or Jewish last names or foreign-born wives broke rules very explicitly and openly and routinely and nothing happened to them, except they were hired by the town, they were allowed to break the rules more explicitly or their property assessment were reduced.
For whatever combination of reasons, my business, my family and I were treated remarkable differently from cases with some parallels to mine involving long time town residents, supporters of the current town government, who do not have some of those other attributes that made us stand out. In other words, if I were a buddy for decades of the guys running the town, I could have operated an oil refinery, a strip club or a satellite launching pad without a permit without worrying about complaints from the neighbors. I certainly would not have been before judge Bruno were I a member of the Hook Boat Club. This pattern of favoritism extends to every aspect of town government.
The town’s side in this case may claim they are public servants doing the best they can, trying to be fair. The evidence says otherwise. Perhaps, as the supervisor and town attorney began to argue in mid-January 2011 but not before, the other side will argue that they never tried to shut my business down. Again, the evidence is clear that they did try and that if I had not borrowed money against my home equity to fight back, they would have happily rolled over me and ruined me and my family for no good reason.
Perhaps the other side will claim or imply that I failed to work with them reasonably to resolve this dispute. But at every turn, my good faith efforts to settle my matters before the town were turned into opportunities for renewed attack against me. I did everything I could do short of groveling and begging for mercy to resolve the issues before the town.