ENFIELD, N.Y.—For over a year, and even stretching back further, the Town of Enfield’s government has been beset by a sprawling range of issues that have been equal parts ugly, controversial and downright unpredictable.
Now explicitly detailed in a newly published independent report called for by the Town’s legal counsel, all issues involving personal conflicts between Enfield leadership, board members, staffers and the public, have been linked to a “culture of controversy” in the government overseeing the town of about 3,500 residents. That culture has been marked by “raised voices and inappropriate language at meetings and critical assessments by officials of their colleagues, including attribution of nefarious motives for their actions,” according to the report, which can be read in full at the bottom of this article.
That culture has pushed “valued members” of the government from office, the report alleges.
The 24-page report, prepared by retired lawyer Ron Mendrick, a former partner at Rochester-based law firm Harter, Secrest & Emery, was published on the town’s website earlier this month after interviewing a number of involved parties in the Enfield government. Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond said the report was commissioned at the behest of the town’s legal representative.
“The Town Board engaged with a labor investigator on advice of the Town’s legal counsel,” said Redmond, who succeeded Beth McGee, when asked for a statement. “The Town Board intends to utilize the findings of the report to facilitate more cooperative and efficient operations within the town government.”
The report came after an 18 month period marred by contentious meetings over the explicit inclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance at town meetings, a debate surrounding former supervisor McGee’s resignation and succession plan, plus more internal anger over proposals to make the Highway Superintendent and Town Clerk jobs appointed positions instead of elected (both propositions were defeated in November after spawning criticism that they were a retaliation tactic by McGee against Highway Superintendent Buddy Rollins and Town Clerk Ellen Woods), and in particular the pay and workload of the Town Clerk position.
In board meetings, arguments would frequently arise between Town Board member Bob Lynch, the most conservative member on the board, and other more liberal board members that would often derail the meeting and almost inevitably turn hostile. Beyond that, two Town Board members resigned within two months of each other, including Michael Miles, who resigned after just two months on the board due to its “toxic nature.”
Lynch said the board had decided that, instead of commenting on their reactions to the report, that they would let the “report speak for itself.”
While the body of the report is difficult to follow at times, and chooses to be light on calling out individuals, Mendrick’s overall work paints a profoundly unflattering picture of how the Enfield government operates, including the following:
- Criticism between Board members on social media
- Tit-for-tat exchanges during Board meetings
- Judging legislation on who introduced it instead of its merits
- Dividing into factions against certain Board members
- Creating a culture of animosity
- Using personal attacks to heighten individual brand, at times interfering with work that would benefit Enfield
- Accusations of impropriety (“nefariousness”) between Board members
“In the past year or more, the tone of Town Board meetings and relations among some officials had been characterized as escalating controversial personal attacks and counter-attacks,” the report reads. “This controversy reportedly led to a continuing back and forth among some former and current officials and at times has interrupted Board meetings (and prolonged them), other functions and relationships. Reportedly, there was a threat of litigation challenging the Town’s response to a FOIL request for related documents and various allegations of defamation.”
Perhaps the most damning part of the report claims that “votes on matters and appointments might be based on who proposed the resolution or who is the person to be appointed, rather than the merits of the issue or person. To avoid such possible results, many reported that he/she wants to stop, to disengage, disentangle from, the cycle of response/counter retort, yet many continue to take the bait and respond to the next public post or comment about them.”
In response to that, Mendrick writes: “That is like saying someone else started the fight [so I am not responsible], but here it is not possible to identify who started it nor does it matter.”
The report goes on to recount, in extensive detail, the tug-of-war over the Town Clerk position, formerly held by Ellen Woods, and whether or not its workload justified higher pay and hiring a deputy to help. That had also caused quite a bit of rancor during board meetings over the last year or so.
Enfield isn’t unfamiliar with a bit more vim and vinegar than would typically be seen at municipal meetings elsewhere in Tompkins County. Some readers may remember the arduous controversy over the Black Oak Wind Farm, which divided residents and generated enough consternation that it was eventually canceled by the developers in 2017 after several years of back-and-forth efforts.
Beyond that, the report notes that some interviewees referred to Enfield as “Tabloid Town,” and that the town’s long history of controversy has made “the current tone seem common, acceptable and unavoidable,” despite that most recognize that it is also a detraction from progress in Enfield and produces gridlock.
Mendrick’s report ends with suggestions for how to cure the Board’s culture, and actually portrays some hope that change can be achieved—noting the government environment in Enfield is healthier now than it was several months ago, though it doesn’t attribute any specific factors for that improvement.
According to the report, Enfield should create, adopt and apply standards and protocols for all officials, a set of rules that should be created by consensus which would set clear expectations for behavior by Board members. It should also build a curriculum for orientation of officials and training of officials who take over jobs. Additionally, the town should codify which officials have authority over the municipal IT system and resolve the Clerk workload and salary issue promptly.
“More than a few [interviewees] reported that if everyone engaged simply could recognize that all have a common goal to serve the Town effectively, instead of factional or personal interests, this culture would change,” Mendrick wrote in the closing of his findings. “This would require that everyone recognize that everyone else has a genuine reason for their position—although it might be different than their own—and stop attributing nefarious motives to one another.”