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Shapiro calls for mayor to resign

SARANAC LAKE — At a tense village board meeting on Monday, a former trustee of the board called for Mayor Jimmy Williams to resign, alleging that he does not live in the village and cannot legally serve as mayor. Williams argued that the law doesn’t bar him from holding elected office out of a residence he owns within the village.

The issue comes down the the definition of “residence” in the state law. It has been a perennial issue all over the state — from New York City to Tupper Lake — the interpretation of the state law is nebulous, enforcement is lax and legal experts say courts tend to allow candidate to choose a residence as their “political home.”

Trustees and members of the public also brought up transparency concerns on Monday over Williams’ decision to have the board discuss this matter in a private executive session, and his decision to leave a letter from the former trustee out of the meeting’s agenda packet.

It was Rich Shapiro, who served on the board for eight years until March, who called for Williams to resign or for the board to remove him if he didn’t. Shapiro and Williams have clashed on countless issues throughout their time on the board together.

Shapiro has been bringing up this issue of Williams’ residence since 2022 — when Williams was first running for office.

Williams said, after a request from the board on Monday, the village’s attorney is looking at this issue again.

Trustee Aurora White said she worries that if this isn’t resolved, it could lead to members of the public questioning and possibly challenging split board decisions that are made with Williams as the deciding vote.

At the village’s meeting on Monday, there were interruptions, raised voices, insults and accusations.

Residence

In his letter, Shapiro cites a portion of state law which states that people are only eligible for the position of village mayor if they are “a resident of the village.”

Williams’ voting address is within the village, at a short-term vacation rental on Main Street, above T.F. Finnigans, which he owns.

But his family home is outside the village on Kiwassa Lake Road, according to an application for a veterans tax exemption he filed with Harrietstown. The law about this exemption states it can only be applied to a “primary residence.”

Before his election in 2022, Williams said the Main Street unit is “one of (his) residences” — where he lived when he moved back to town, where he stays when it’s convenient and a place he rents out as a short-term rental when he’s not staying there.

Williams pointed to a state Supreme Court ruling allowing people to own two residences and choose one for “election purposes.” Shapiro said voting is different than holding office. Williams said neither the law Shapiro quoted, nor the election law governing voter registration, mention “primary residences.”

According to the state Department of State’s online Local Government Public Officers course, residency is defined as a “domicile … where you live” in election law — “that place where a person maintains a fixed, permanent and principal home and to which he, wherever temporarily located, always intends to return.”

The course said determining a person’s residence takes evaluation of their “expressed intent” and of their “conduct.”

“To be a resident of a place, a person must be physically present with the intent to remain for a period of time,” the course states.

Downstate, similar concerns were raised about New York City Mayor Eric Adams when he ran for office in 2021.

“Election law experts said courts have generally been generous in interpreting what residency means for candidates,” the New York Times reported at the time.

The New York Times cited Martin Connor, an election lawyer and former state senator of 30 years, as saying that courts typically allow candidates to have two residences, and select one as what he called their “political home.”

“Connor said courts have at times allowed people to claim a place as their residence even if they stay there only two nights a week,” the NYT reported.

Franklin County Republican Election Commissioner Tracy Sparks said the county Board of Elections is only responsible for voter registration — not officials’ residency.

She’s handled this issue before. In nearby Tupper Lake, the 2021 mayoral election had two candidates who each owned property inside and outside the village. Each claimed the property inside the village as their voting address, but slept some or most nights at the property outside the village lines.

The state Board of Elections declined to weigh in on this matter. Local government attorneys who were asked about this issue did not want to speak on it because it wasn’t directly related to their municipalities, but confirmed the whole issue is a quagmire of vague definitions.

On Monday, Shapiro also distributed an email conversation he had with New York State Conference of Mayors attorney Rebecca Ruscito, who said “failure to maintain residency results in a vacancy.”

“I would suggest that the board point these circumstances out to (the mayor) and press upon him that he is unqualified to hold public office in the village and proceed from there,” she wrote.

Ruscito told Shaprio if the mayor refuses to vacate or resign, “the board will need to initiate legal action,” and he suggested the board could pursue an Article 78 proceeding — a lawsuit challenging action or inaction of a government board which could be used to remove an elected official.

Public or private

White had asked for Shapiro’s letter and topic of Williams’ residency to be included on the Monday meeting agenda. They were not.

Williams said, after making calls to Albany, he determined that the village is not required by law to include every correspondence people ask to be included in the agenda.

He said the last line of Shapiro’s letter pushed the topic into executive session. In that sentence, Shapiro asked Williams to resign, saying it would save the village the time and expense of initiating an Article 78 proceeding against him. Williams said this was proposing litigation and means it was eligible for executive session.

White said Shapiro’s mentioning of litigation is not a legitimate claim to bring litigation.

“I don’t know if this is what you are going to talk about in executive session. But if it is, do not,” Shapiro said.

At the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to enter into a private executive session to discuss “future litigation and employment history of particular person or corporation.”

On Tuesday, state Committee on Open Government Executive Director Shoshanah Bewlay told the Enterprise, though she doesn’t have all the facts and is not the village’s attorney, it appeared the “future litigation” reason for executive session “doesn’t seem proper.”

“The litigation can’t just be potential. It has to be proposed, pending or current,” Bewlay said.

Williams said Shapiro “requested” litigation, which he felt constitutes proposed litigation.

White said there were actually two situations the agenda called for an executive session on — Shapiro’s letter and an employee discussion. She believes they should have been listed separately for clarity, instead of being bunched together. At the end of the public meeting, she asked the board to separate the reasons for executive session and to vote on each one individually.

The purpose of this part of the agenda is to let the public know — in broad strokes — what they will be discussing in private, she said.

The board did not split the two items into separate votes.

Entering executive session requires a vote by the majority of the board. White said since the two items were not separated she still voted to enter executive session.

Bewlay said if the board was discussing things that could lead to the removal of the mayor, that could qualify for executive session. She added, though, that there is nothing requiring them to hold this discussion in executive session, and it could be public.

Bewlay said board members can also invite anyone they want to be in that session, depending on the rules of the board.

Others weigh in

Several members of the board felt this debate and decision should be open to the public.

White said Williams’ decision hid information from the public.

“I’m concerned that I asked for something to be put on the agenda, and it was not and you’re the one who made the decision,” White said. “Instead, you made a unilateral decision to do that.”

She said it is up to the board to decide what to do and that this should be done publicly.

“I chair this meeting and I will make those decisions,” Williams said.

Shapiro said this is “censoring” the public.

“Rich, we are not going to turn this into a debate,” Williams said.

Trustee Sean Ryan said he took Rich’s comments in the letter as proposed litigation.

Trustee Kelly Brunette said the board has to discuss the larger issue Shapiro brought up, but that they need to be able to trust each other as a team. She said there is precedent for letters from the public to be put on the agenda.

“When you remove things without the opinion of the other board members, that isn’t working as a team,” Brunette said.

Trustee Matt Scollin said, years ago, Williams made an Article 78 comment about the last administration, which shut down discussion then. So he felt there was precedent for removing the letter.

Village resident Mark Wilson, who has been attending board meetings regularly to advocate against the village’s plans to build an emergency services complex at 33 Petrova Ave., said the “optics” look bad.

“To have the mayor unilaterally deciding what goes on or off the agenda — seemingly based on a matter of personal pride or potential embarrassment — looks terrible,” Wilson said.

Williams bristled at this.

“I would never keep something off an agenda driven by pride or embarrassment,” Williams said.

He said the village board has been deemed dysfunctional for years and he is trying to set a standard for the people of Saranac Lake.

“You yourself, sir, are dishonest,” Williams told Wilson.

Williams accused Wilson of hiding the fact that he’s a neighbor of the EMS building project.

Wilson said he’s been open about this. He said he is not a NIMBY — the acronym for “not in my backyard” used to describe people who oppose development near their homes. Wilson said though he’s a neighbor to the property, his concerns are about housing and safety for the village. He has maintained that the 33 Petrova location could be used for homes and also voiced concern with emergency vehicles driving through a school zone, which he called “unconscionable.”

White said Williams’ response was “inappropriate.”

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