There is a lot of angst on Grand Island lately. I’d rather talk about the many things we are working on that I’m excited about— like the Gusmacker (Grand Island night!), or progress on the farmer’s market, or my work with the State Parks to improve the Island….. It would be much more pleasant (and easier) to speak about exciting projects. But all of that will have to wait until a future letter.
I promised to be transparent, and I’m working hard to keep that promise. I believe transparency makes for good government. And I also believe that good things come from open conversation, even when those conversations are difficult. So let’s keep the conversation going and chat about some of the challenges we face.
Allegations of harassment have existed for years
The angst did not start with me. It’s been a longstanding narrative for years, even decades. One side says that the code enforcement at Town Hall is “Lucifer in the flesh”, to borrow John Bohner’s recent colorful words. The other side says that our code enforcement crew is all that’s preventing Grand Island from becoming a tent city. And to be honest, I have sided more often with the first group. Not to say that I think anyone at Town Hall is some sort of dissipated fiend. I just think there has been a problem with the way our Town has approached code enforcement in the past.
I might think there is room for improvement, but I’m not going to throw my keys to town hall to some mob with pitch forks and torches. Yes, I want to improve on the status quo. And I’m working towards that goal. But I’m not here to fulfill anyone’s personal vendettas. And although some may disagree, there is a lot of good going on at Town Hall. I must say that we have some talented people working for us. And in this day and age, anyone with any business experience knows it’s hard to come by talented, committed people.
To be frank, behind the dust and noise, I can find little with regard to actual documented cases of improper behavior. Yes, I have heard some things that disturb me. And just because there's no formal record does not mean that bad things did not happen. It means that as your new Supervisor I’m forced to start from a blank slate, tabula rasa. Nonetheless, I do believe there are actions we can take to help improve the situation and heal the wounds of both the pro and anti-Town Hall camps.
It’s the Town Board’s job to manage code enforcement
It’s the job of the Town Board to set priorities/expectations for the employees of the Town and to mitigate risk and conflict. It is also our job to act when those expectations are not met. To me— pertaining to Code Enforcement— that means health and safety issues first, getting buildings built second, and responding to complaints third. It does not mean sneaking in anyone’s backyard or picking on anyone. And if any of that happens (or there are allegations that such things are happening on my watch), I will push the Town Board to step in and investigate and take action.
But I will not step in to help someone break the law. For example, if someone wants to build a day care center out of matchsticks, should I call code enforcement and say, “Sounds great! Business first!”? Absolutely not. Please keep in mind that the law is very clear when it comes to certain building requirements, especially those related to fire prevention. Section 107 of the New York State Building Code states that “No town . . . may waive, modify, or otherwise alter any provision of this code . . .” In other words, the law is the law. And abiding by the law is what helps protect our families from wiring that sparks in the wall, railings that collapse, and elevator shafts that open to empty pits.
Judgement is key
None of what I have said is meant as a sanction or justification for the years and years of conflict. As I said, I am not blind to the atmosphere on the island. And I don’t buy into the few bad apples argument—meaning that there are just a handful of baddies that cause all the noise and conflict with Town Hall. It’s bigger than that.
There is a fine line. Yes, if a code enforcement officer is driving and he or she notices six delivery cement trucks parked on someone’s lawn, which they know have no right to be there, then the officer has a duty to check out the situation. But if there have been no complaints and there are no apparent violations visible from the road, then there should be no further inquiry. Code enforcement should not be a euphemism for ‘special investigations unit’.
Some people will disagree with what I just said. They will say that I should go back to what I said above and remind me that the law is the law. It is. But even for very important legal issues, it’s common for the Supreme Court to be divided. I’m reminded of the character in Les Miserable, Inspector Javert, who demands strict interpretation of the law and punishment without a reasonable examination of the totality of the circumstances. I’m not calling anyone Javert right now. Nor am I saying we should let people let their properties fall into disrepair. But I am saying if no one is complaining and no harm is apparent, then maybe “no harm, no foul” is as good a law as any.
Empathy is even more important
What I’m really getting at is empathy. If you think wanting a little more understanding makes me soft, so be it. Because I hope to lead Town Hall in a way where we all become a little more empathetic towards each other—be it the guy who is struggling to fix his roof or the guy who is responding to a complaint about the broken roof. It’s important to step back a bit and say, “Let’s remember we are all on this Island together, and it’s a big Island, but it’s not that big.”
We need to find a way to get along. i.e., we need to be less eager to point a finger when it might be easier to lend a hand. And that goes for our code enforcement team too. I get that. And I will work on that. But please be patient. I have no magic wand. When wounds go this deep, it takes time heal.
On the file deletion
I feel I need to talk about this subject too. First, I’m glad people know about. I think there were lax file and document retention procedures in place at town hall. And this conversation has allowed us to discuss better ways to handle it going forward. I am certainly not trying to cover anything up or sweep it under the rug. I have spoken to the authorities and it’s now in their hands. But my strong assumption (and even my suggestion) is that they let it go— and we all let it go, and find a way to use this to get stronger.
With all the terrible things happening in the world, the last thing I want is our public prosecutors wasting their time and resources investigating this. It’s their decision, but I’m not partial to the politics of personal destruction. Yes, someone deleted the files. And maybe there was malicious intent. But I think at this point, if that’s the case, the person responsible probably feels enough remorse after being tried in the court of public opinion. And if they don’t yet, nothing I, or anyone else (including a prosecutor with competing priorities) does, is likely to change that.
I’ll close with the oft quoted verse from the Bible which states that, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven…” Rather than a time of never ending war, I hope to make the next four years a time to heal, a time to build up, a time to dance, and a time to embrace. Let us be productive. Let us find ways to work together. Let us move forward.
With highest regards,
-as first appeared in the Island Dispatch