The Highway Superintendents Association of Rockland County and New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways (NYSAOTSOH) filed a lawsuit against the Town of Clarkstown claiming its creation of fleet manager position took state authorized responsibilities from Highway Superintendent Wayne Ballard because the person will report to the town board.
“Our argument is they passed a town law in direct violation of the New York State statute, which is the New York State Highway law,” said Orangetown Highway Superintendent Jim Dean.
Dean said the lawsuit originated with the Rockland Superintendents Association. They made a presentation to the state association, which joined the legal action. Dean, who is serving as the spokesperson, said he is one of the plaintiffs along with: former Clarkstown Highway Superintendent John Mauro, and current Superintendents Larry Brissing of Stony Point, Frank Brooks of Haverstraw, Tony Sharan of Ramapo, and Ballard. Attorney Dennis Lynch of Nyack filed the lawsuit in Rockland County Supreme Court on November 14.
"The issue is a Clarkstown issue but it has statewide implications," said Lynch.
Dean said highway superintendents across the state are supportive of the lawsuit because the town’s action challenges state law. The state association represents the highway superintendents of 930 towns.
“In the early 1900s, New York State legislature passed a law creating the New York state highway law,” said Dean. “Read the preamble of that, part of it was, to provide protection of the public, so that it is best served by having a duly-elected highway superintendent who is directly and personally responsible for highways and specific operating personnel within the town.”
Dean added, “That’s the crux of our argument. By taking the mechanics away from the highway superintendent and putting them under a person who does not answer to the public, they are circumventing the highway law. They are taking away the highway superintendent’s ability to get the job done.”
Clarkstown Town Attorney Amy Mele said she could not comment on the lawsuit because it was pending litigation.
Dean and his colleagues are not opposed to a fleet manager position or consolidation of the town’s mechanics into one garage entity. They object to the fleet manager not reporting to Ballard. Dean said with equipment maintenance not being under his control, the plows might not be ready when Ballard needs them.
“They are disenfranchising the voters,” he stated. “The voters last year elected the highway superintendent to do the job.”
Dean said the town’s move circumvents what voters wanted. He pointed out that in November 2011, Clarkstown voters overwhelmingly turned down a referendum to change the elected position of highway superintendent to an appointed one by a 72 percent to 27 percent vote margin. They also re-elected Ballard by 53 percent compared to 46 percent for Dennis Malone, the recently appointed fleet manager.
Lynch said Clarkstown is trying to bypass the state law that gives the highway superintendent statutory powers and take them away by putting a political appointee in place.
"We think it's a road to hurt the public and help the politicians," said Lynch.
Dean said, “In local town government, there are two appointing authorities. The town board is the appointing authority for everybody except people who work in highway operations. It’s for that reason, that check and balance (system). The highway superintendent has to stand for election based on whether he gets the job done or not. If he doesn’t have control over his equipment and it can be manipulated by somebody else, he loses that ability to get the job done.”
In July the town board except for Councilwoman Shirley Lasker approved the new local law. The board stated the local law does not reduce the powers of the highway superintendent as required by state highway law.
“It reinforces that this law will not and does not diminish any statutory powers and duties of the Town Superintendent of Highways by this consolidation.”
Dean did not mince words when talking about how critical it is for the superintendent to have authority over the equipment.
“It’s a critical part of our operation,” he said. “When I started here, we had half the amount of roads. We had 39 guys. We didn’t pick up leaves and brush. The reason we can do it with only 51 guys is we have equipment that does most of the work. If you don’t have the equipment, you have a work force standing around not able to accomplish anything.”
Dean said residents judge the superintendent’s effectiveness in plowing roads and collecting leaves and yard waste.
“If somebody decides they want to shaft you and you’re not getting the leaves picked up and not plowing the streets, you can be in big trouble,” he said. “Clarkstown is saying that by taking it out of there, they are not impacting his ability to maintain highway, which is blowing smoke.”