New Hyde Park, Baldwin-based attorneys to challenge actions of town in court
Two years. It’s been two years since the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter (TOHAS) banned three former employees prompting a lawsuit; one year since the shelter director was “reassigned” after a 20-year-old YouTube video showcased her cheering the euthanasia of a cat and less than a month since a second suit was filed against the town, citing violations of the municipal law.
When will it all end? You be the judge. The town has been entrenched in one lawsuit and now, two more lawyers are jumping into the fray.
Baldwin attorney MaryJean Mezzina and New Hyde Park lawyer Elizabeth Stein filed a lawsuit against the Town of Hempstead on March 19. They claim town officials’ refusal to answer animal shelter-related questions during board meetings violates the Open Meetings Law during a public session.
The town has been berated with accusations alleging neglect of sheltered pets and questionable practices concerning cremation and an operating budget much bigger than a comparable shelter, The Town of North Hempstead whose 2012 shelter budget tops off at $522,141. TOHAS current 2012 adopted budget totals approximately $7.4 million.
Supervisor Kate Murray and Town Attorney Joseph Ra have refused to answer questions about the animal shelter during recent board meetings, citing a pending 2-year-old lawsuit, according to Article 78 proceedings obtained by Anton Newspapers. They instructed that questions be submitted to the board in writing or through Freedom of Information Act requests.
According to the Article 78, on Jan. 10 petitioners were present at a board meeting, where Mezzina posed a question concerning the alleged euthanasia of a pet awaiting pickup by its owner at the animal shelter. The town board, through Ra, refused to answer any questions concerning TOHAS, citing the shelter was the “subject of a federal lawsuit and because board meetings are recorded, these recordings would taint the potential jury selected to hear the case when tried.”
“[MaryJean] wanted to ask about the policies and procedures at the animal shelter that would actually allow something like this to happen,” Stein said. “What could’ve gone wrong that somebody’s personal pet was killed?”
The town released a statement but would not comment further.
“In general, the town does not comment on pending litigation,” the statement read. “At the same time, we believe that this lawsuit is well beyond the bounds of frivolousness. What’s more, the town board fully complies with the provisions of the Open Meetings Law. In response to inquiries about the town’s animal shelter, we have replied to hundreds of Freedom of Information requests in a timely manner.”
“We both felt that this was so outrageous and egregious; that they can be hiding behind an unrelated lawsuit and not answer questions they feel will cause the town embarrassment is unacceptable,” Stein reacted. “We did this out of our own pockets. It’s expensive and time consuming but we feel very strongly that this is something the public has to be made aware of.”
The filing read that Mezzina’s question had nothing to do with the lawsuit concerning the shelter, but was “tangentially related to the suit.” Since the question did not involve the lawsuit, the attorneys felt the town was compelled to answer. Ra reiterated his statement to answer no questions pertaining to TOHAS during the Jan. 10 meeting.
“I was shocked,” Mezzina exclaimed. “I had never been to a town meeting before and I was shocked at their arrogance. My question was totally unrelated to their ongoing issue concerning the shelter.”
Mezzina and Stein claim the board’s refusal to answer questions “not only violates the established protocol of the Town of Hempstead to entertain all questions related to the town and its operation, but violates the law itself.”
“Our feeling is that from a legal point of view, they simply cannot do that,” Stein stated. “The question had absolutely nothing to do with the lawsuit regardless if it were during the public session or not. That lawsuit goes back two years ago.”
New York State Committee on Open Government (COG) officials stated that there is no requirement in the law that says a public official has to answer questions or speak during a public meeting. However, according to the Article 78, COG Executive Director Robert J. Freeman noted that when a public body permits the public to speak, it should do so in, “accordance with reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.”
This is the second lawsuit TOHAS has become entwined in. Three former volunteers filed a lawsuit on Dec. 8, 2010 against the town, Supervisor Murray and seven other employees after the volunteers were banned from the shelter. The suit was filed in federal court for defamation of character and violation of First Amendment rights. A decision has yet to be made.
“They want to whole issue to go away,” Mezzina stated. “It’s not going to go away.”
Anton Newspapers previously reported that former volunteer Diane Madden said the ban came from what they say is retaliation for speaking out to shelter employees and town officials about alleged abuse and neglect.
When requests were made to the town, they went unanswered and after persistent inquiries, she, along with Lucille Defina and Frances Lucivero-Pelletier were banned from the facility in October 2012.
“From that first meeting, [Mezzina] made a decision along with Liz [Stein] to bring this out into the public,” Madden said. “The bottom line is this is something the public hasn’t been aware of because unfortunately everyone doesn’t attend these town board meetings. Much of the public had no idea town officials were refusing to answer questions about the shelter and hiding behind our defamation of character lawsuit which is absurd.”
The animal shelter is currently under investigation by the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the New York State Comptroller’s Office is conducting an audit of the shelter’s financial operations.