Saranac Lake board votes to censure Shapiro

Rich Shapiro is seen at a board meeting in April. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Village Board voted to censure Trustee Rich Shapiro on Monday, citing “persistent disruptive conduct” which the board found “embarrassing and deeply concerning,” and specifically referencing a verbal altercation Shapiro had with a village resident at a meeting last month.

The resolution to censure Shapiro, written by Trustee Matt Scollin, passed with three votes — Scollin, Trustee Kelly Brunette and Mayor Jimmy Williams. Shapiro abstained from the vote. Trustee Tom Catillaz was not present at the meeting.

Williams said censure is just a reprimand. A censure says the board does not approve of his actions, but does not carry any other implications.

“When you see behaviors that are unacceptable, it’s your responsibility to call them out and call them out publicly,” Scollin said. “Silence is just kind of implicit acceptance.”

Brunette said she voted to censure because she didn’t see a plan from Shapiro to move forward in a “positive and respectful manner.”

The village board began the censure process on May 23. It gave Shapiro until now to file an appeal and “correct misconduct.”

Shapiro did not file an appeal of the process, Williams said. Williams said there haven’t been any new issues since then. Shapiro wrote an apology letter published in the Enterprise as a letter to the editor. Williams said this was not a requirement and was Shapiro’s choice.

Shapiro said the board’s censure of his actions is disingenuous and designed to attack him for questioning the mayor and board’s actions.

“You are trying to use this to publicly humiliate me and to silence me,” Shapiro wrote in an email to Williams. “Neither will happen.”

Scollin said he would have moved to censure any member of the board if they had behaved in the same manner as Shapiro had.

“We need our elected officials to be held accountable,” he said.

Reasons for censure

The censure resolution cites the board’s desire to encourage community participation in its business and says public comment is for “resident comment and the expression of opinion, not a direct debate.”

“Commentators should not be intimidated by village board rebuttal,” Scollin wrote in the resolution.

The resolution says Shapiro intimidated village resident Fred Balzac at a May 19 joint meeting between the town and village boards after Balzac made allegations about him and his wife, Franklin County Legislator Lindy Ellis, in a public comment period.

“Trustee Shapiro angrily directed the profane term ‘bulls***’ at a village resident several times … (and) left the joint meeting in a manner unbecoming a duly elected member of the Saranac Lake Board of Trustees,” the resolution reads.

The resolution also says his return was “equally unbecoming,” as he called Balzac an “a*** pore.”

These actions were “beneath the dignity of the office Trustee Shapiro holds,” the resolution reads, and “inconsistent with village values and contrary to the ‘Saranac Lake Way.'”

Two days later, at a Democratic rally at Riverside Park, he got in a physical confrontation with St. Armand resident Jacob Vennie-Vollrath, who was holding a sign protesting Ellis as she spoke on stage, and with whom he has feuded with for several years.

Williams said he would have liked Shapiro’s apology letter to also mention this incident in the park.

Scollin’s resolution says that Shapiro’s quotes to the Enterprise in a story on the two confrontations were “devoid of any remorse or acceptance of responsibility for his actions.”

Shapiro said using this article as evidence that he did not feel remorse was “ridiculous.” An article does not have all his feelings, he said, and his quotes came from when things were still “raw.”

“An ADE article written from the night that I was blindsided by the initial resolution to censure me that does not contain a quote from me expressing remorse does not prove that I was not sorry for using what you refer to as profane language,” Shapiro wrote in an email to the board.

Shapiro initially denied using profanity in the May 23 meeting when the censure process began.

“I had denied using profanity since I do not consider the word I used to be profanity,” Shapiro wrote to the board. “The word which I used obviously cannot be that bad since you are using it in the agenda for Monday’s meeting. Not even bothering to replace letters with asterisks.”

The word “bulls***” was printed in full in the resolution.

Shapiro says he doesn’t believe that word is profane.

“The word is not on George Carlin’s list of ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,'” Shapiro wrote, referencing a bit from the famous comedian.

“I should not have used a word that some people take offense at,” Shapiro said on Tuesday. “But I think (the board) did that (censure) as much as a public attempt to humiliate me as anything else.”

At the meeting on Monday, Shapiro recited a quote often attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels — “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

“We’re seeing this play out on the national scale right now,” he said, “and, unfortunately, we’re seeing it occurring at the local level.”

Shapiro said in the past few years, he and his wife have faced a “constant barrage of false accusations being made in public comment sessions.”

“We don’t have any means to refute them,” Shapiro said.

“I have sat through them for almost two years now,” he wrote in an email to Williams. “At the joint meeting he went after my wife. I defend my family.”

Shapiro said he will continue to refute allegations made about him and his wife in public meetings.

Balzac is one of the people making allegations about Shapiro.

“It’s concerning to hear Goebbels quoted in the context of both the Big Lie about the 2020 election and what’s being said in Saranac Lake,” Balzac said. “The truth is a two-way street, Rich, so you might want to start with yourself.”

“Can I respond to that?” Shapiro asked.

“If it’s productive and positive,” Williams said.

Shapiro said he has always tried to tell the truth, but he feels Balzac has leveled accusations at him and his wife without proof.

Balzac gave the board print-outs of an email he said is proof of the basis of “false attacks” on Vennie-Vollrath, the local man who was protesting Ellis in Riverside Park last month when he was body-checked by Shapiro.

Shapiro read it out loud and said it was not proof.

The email was sent from Shapiro’s attorney to Vennie-Vollrath around two years ago. It tells Vennie-Vollrath to not contact Shapiro or Ellis in any method, or it would be considered harassment.

Shapiro said Vennie-Vollrath harassed him and Ellis by following them across a street and continuing to talk to them.

Shapiro said Ellis was worried for her safety, so they reported this to the Franklin County district attorney, who recommended they have an attorney write a letter.

“It isn’t productive to respond to lies upon lies made by a troubled politician about private citizens,” Vennie-Vollrath wrote in an email in response to what Shapiro said at Monday’s meeting. “Saranac Lake made their choice in the most recent election to move on from this negativity and the village board made the decision to censure a trustee for his pattern of behavior.”

Balzac later accused Shapiro of having a larger pattern of bad behavior.

“Shapiro’s behavior and use of language extends beyond (these two instances),” Balzac said.

He thinks Shaprio is “unfit for public office” and wants to see him removed or replaced.

“They are public officials,” Balzac said on Monday. “They are open to criticism from members of the public.”

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” Balzac said on Wednesday.

“When public officials target private citizens who speak up against or criticize their actions and threaten SLAPP lawsuits to silence them instead of listening and inviting dialogue working towards common ground we collectively lose the drive for community involvement and engagement as well as lose a diversity of opinions and perspectives,” Vennie-Vollrath wrote. “Over the past few months village board meeting attendance has increased, people feel more comfortable expressing their opinions/ideas, and public dialogue has skyrocketed … I believe all of that speaks for itself.”

After the censure vote, Williams said he wants to move forward with a “fresh start.”

He said the issue is over and he wants to move on to the village’s work.

Brunette hopes the censure did what it was supposed to do and will “restore respect and order to the board.” She said she understands emotions and stress were high in the village administration changeover, but hopes the fighting is behind them.

“Every day is a new day,” Scollin said.


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