Toen of Lansing Lansing Planning BoardTown of Lansing Planning Board (left to right) Larry Sharpsteen, Sandy Conlon, Lin Davidson, Dale Baker, Jerry Caward, Town of Lansing Director of Planning C.J. Randall, Al Fiorille, Deborah Trumbull, Dean Shea, and Thomas Butler

Each year, when Planning Board members terms come to an end the Board recommends candidates for the vacating seats to the Town Board.  The Board voted Monday to recommend Planning Board member Dean Shea for a new seven year term, and alternate members Tom Butler and Dale Baker for additional one-year terms.  But not without controversy involving Shea and members of the public at a contentious public hearing at the end of March at which Emmons Road neighbors to a the Osmica Bed & Breakfast / Reception Venue project fiercely voiced their opposition to the project.

The incident occurred when Richard Van Emery's phone sounded an alarm while his wife, Trish (one of the most outspoken opponents to the Osmica project, which was subsequently approved) was addressing the Board.  Shea told him to turn off the phone, or to leave the room to deal with it.  But Van Emery, who is hearing-impaired, couldn't hear his phone, and didn't understand what Shea was saying.  The incident escalated even as another member of the public sought to help to Van Every.

The Van Everys and their neighbors Bill Carey, Marla Weaver, and Monica Morgan told the Planning Board Monday that they must reflect on their behavior, and choose new board members who are naturally respectful of the public.  They urged the board to oust Shea, charging that the Van Everys had never received an apology.  But at a later point in the meeting Shea told a different version of the story.  He said that he has a hearing disability himself, and was struggling to hear Trish Van Every's remarks over the sounds of the cell phone and unruly, disrespectful members of the public.  Planning Board member Larry Sharpsteen said that was the worst meeting in his 40 years experience on the planning board.  He said he could not remember a more contentious meeting that "brought as much passion from the public."

Soon after that and other incidents at Town and planning Board meetings Supervisor Ed LaVigne instituted mandatory conflict resolution and sensitivity training for all public board members.  Improvements were made to the courtroom sound system, and board members were required to use microphones so they could be heard.  The Planning Board, which had been huddling around a table where they were often inaudible, moved up to the desk seats where they could both be seen and heard, using the courtroom sound system.

The 'Privilege of the Floor' segment of the public meetings was largely misunderstood in Lansing to be a time for a conversation between the public and board members, when it is intended for the board to hear concerns that they can investigate and respond to at a later time.  The rules for 'Privilege of the Floor' are now explained at each meeting, as well as a printed version distributed to the public attending each meeting.

Carey and Trish Van Every commended the board for these changes, but all five speakers warned that Shea's response to the cell phone alarm may have been a legal violation.

"Quite frankly, I think back on March, there may have been some state and federal laws that were violators at that meeting, which still could result in legal action," Richard Van Every told the Board. "These laws are listed under the American Disabilities Act of 1990 and 2009.  I think all members need to be aware of state and federal laws that are enacted to help people with challenges during the meeting.  I'd like you to take this incident a consideration when you make recommendations for members."

From Van Every's point of view he was verbally attacked by an appointed board member.

"As the year ends, we know it's a time to recommend people for the Planning Board," Van Emery said. "I thought I'd review an incident that happened to me in March of this year during the planning board meeting. At this meeting, my cell phone alarm sounded not the, some kind of alarm that I don't know about and I'm hearing impaired and I didn't hear this noise. A board member told me to shut off the phone or leave the room, but I couldn't understand what he was yelling about and I can't hear or distinguish his words. Then a member of the audience came forward to help me and turn this alarm off. The audience member who was helping me told the board that I was hearing impaired and could not understand the board members directive. At this point, the same board member rather loudly said to me, I should leave the room. You leave the room. And I did. Well, this certainly was an uncomfortable feeling for me. And for, I think, many of the people in the audience. I think this type of a discrimination towards me or any other person with special needs or disabilities is really unconscionable. It should have never happened."

But Shea had a different point of view.  He said the public ignored the Planning Board Chair's instructions to limit their speaking time to three minutes to take one turn to speak and to speak to issues and concerns that were not previously presented.  He said that some members of the public presented their concerns "in a loud, contentious, facetious or condescending manner and sometimes interrupting from the audience."  He said people sitting next to Van Every did not come to his aid, and charged that Van Every was aware that his phone was making noise because "I witnessed this individual take their phone and put it under their leg."

"The real concern that I had at the time was trying to concentrate on what his wife, Mrs. Van Every, was saying and what potentially new concerns she was bringing before the board on the subject at hand because that was ultimately what the board had directed the public to bring was new concerns. Ultimately my hearing disability did not allow me to hear her comments while this electronic device was going off. You probably did not know that I have a hearing problem just as I did not know that Mr. Van Every has a hearing problem -- and why would you or why would I in a town of over 11,000 people?  After not being able to hear Mrs. Van Every's comments for an extended period of time, I asked Mr. Van Every one time, one comment, please take that out in the hall."

While Shea said that his actions were justified under the circumstances, he regrets the tone he used when trying to deal with the situation.  He said he has decided to ask Chairman Jerry Caward to intervene if future breaches of the meeting protocol crop up.

"Some of the audience were offended by my request," Shea said. "My only regret is that I used a tone that was unbecoming and for that I would like to publicly publicly apologize to the board, to the public, and especially to the Van Everys."

Caward also apologized, noting he was newly appointed Chair and not being prepared to handle such a contentious meeting.

"I was the Chair and it was relatively contentious and I was taken back and Dean probably was somewhat agitated that I wasn't doing anything about the alarm was going off or bringing the car back to the meeting," Caward said. "So I apologize for my actions of not taking an action and I apologize to you (Shea) for leaving it up to you to do something."

Shea said he was attaching a statement about the incident to his application to be re-appointed, copies of which he was forwarding to both the Planning and Town Boards.  He also asked the board to consider the contributions he has and is able to make to the board.

"I lack an agenda and bring an open mind to each project that we review," he said. "I try to be punctual and regular in my attendance to board meetings and bringing attention to detail and ability to clearly in, both verbally and in writing, communicate my thoughts. I have the ability to read and understand plans and specifications. I have knowledge of residential construction and construction in general. I have a general familiarity with the town from the early 1960s when I moved here to today. I've been a town property owner since 1985 and I've performed many remodeling projects and the town makes me familiar with the code office staff.  I have four years of prior experience on both the ZBA and the Planning Boards as a member and an alternate, attended the New York State Planning Conference for the last four years. I prepare for meetings in advance by reviewing applications, plans, tax maps, Google maps and Google Earth and I stop at or drive by sites as needed to familiarize myself with the actual conditions and I bring a passion for public participation in the process."

Sharpsteen also urged renewing Shea's board membership.

"I had known Dean for a few years before he became a member of the planning board," he said. "I've known him for business. I've had other dealings with him on other work in other organizations and I think that the contribution that he's made to the Board on the time that he's been here can't be understated. I'm hoping that the moves that the Town has taken to improve communication, the movement of the town statement and seeing to it that all the boards have undergone conflict resolution and sensitivity training after this incident. I look forward to things being, or us being able to be a little more cognizant of each other's feelings. And I hope that opened that's going  to go both ways because I'm sitting up here where we take the flack."

Caward asked the board whether they wanted to go into executive session to consider the Shea recommendation, but board members said they were ready to vote without further discussion.  The board voted to recommend Shea for a new seven year term, and to recommend Planning Board Alternates Butler and Baker for new one-year terms, as well as to appoint Caward chairman and Al Fiorelli vice chairman.  The board voted 5-0 to make the recommendation, with Shea and Sandy Conlon abstaining.