By Connor Beach
Two members of the Huntington Town Board are calling on Supervisor Chad Lupinacci to make the early stages of the town’s budget process open to the public.
Councilwoman Joan Cergol and Councilman Mark Cuthbertson, both Democrats, issued a joint press release Tuesday stating that Lupinacci’s administration invited them last week to participate in early budget meetings, but the invitation was later withdrawn.
“This administration invited us to be a part of the process and then rescinded the invitation,” Cuthbertson said, adding that the administration expressed concerns that attendance by three or more town board members would constitute a violation of New York’s Open Meetings Law.
Cergol said she suggested that the town make the budget meetings open to the public by providing notice of the meetings as a way to satisfy state law.
“The issue was that we would have to provide public notice in the chance that three or more board members show up,” Cergol said. “My response was ‘then just provide public notice.’”
In a response to Cergol and Cuthbertson’s joint statement, Lupinacci, a Republican, said yesterday that information such as staffing decisions and potential staff reductions are discussed during early budget meetings with department directors. He said matters regarding personnel are confidential and cannot be discussed in public meetings.
Lupinacci also stated that town code dictates that it is the supervisor’s job to create the initial tentative budget.
“It states that it is solely the Supervisor’s responsibility to present a budget to the Town Board and the Town Clerk by September 30,” Lupinacci said. “It is not the Town Board’s role – and frankly it would be improper - to participate in this governmental function that the law specifically mandates be the Supervisor’s responsibility.”
Cuthbertson argued that, although the Supervisor is ultimately responsible for the budget, “the council members have always had a seat at the table.” He linked the budget with a number of recent town hirings that were approved by the town board earlier this month along party lines.
“Given the secretive way that jobs have been created and filled by this administration and their significant impact on budget, now more than ever it is critical that we invite more scrutiny to our budget process,” Cuthbertson said.
Lupinacci said the town board does have a role in the budget process, but only “after the Supervisor presents a budget to the Town Board and Town Clerk as is required by statute.”
“We were told that we would get information later, but these are the meetings that I think are most important to hear from the department heads,” Cergol said.
Councilman Eugene Cook, an Independence Party member who caucuses with the Republicans, said he plans to send his legislative aid to “go through all of it and make notes,” a strategy he also employed under former Democratic Supervisor Frank Petrone. He said Cergol and Cuthbertson both know that they can do the same.
Cergol and Cuthbertson both called into question the Republican campaign promise to increase transparency in town hall.
“This administration did talk a lot about transparency, and now it’s time for them to demonstrate that they mean business about transparency,” Cergol said.
Lupinacci said his administration has made it a priority to listen to the concerns of residents.
He said, “We’ve made Town Board meetings more accessible to residents by adding evening meetings to the daytime meeting schedule, almost doubling the number of meetings the Town holds each year, and started live-streaming meetings.”
This year’s hearing on the supervisor’s preliminary budget is scheduled for 2 p.m., Nov. 8 at town hall.