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Lansing Town Board

An anonymous accusation that Lansing Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne's vote to approve a one year delay in the construction of a community center at the Village Solars project was influenced by the developers' contribution to the Lansing Republican Committee was a topic of contention Wednesday at the Lansing Town Board meeting.  After seven members of the public spoke in the public meeting, and a closed 'executive session' at which board members and the Town attorney discussed the allegations, LaVigne, whose supporters have characterized the anonymous flyer that was distributed as a 'smear campaign', said he would fight the accusation.

Thursday morning LaVigne said, ""I volunteered to go before the Ethics Board to clear my name.  I'm innocent."

The controversy revolves around a Town Board vote last August granting Steve and Rocco Lucente a waiver that would permit them to construct a community center a year later than previously approved at their Village Solars development.  Councilman Joe Wetmore argued that delaying the community center for the second time would deprive renters of something they had been promised, and challenged the Lucentes on the timing of their request.  The Lucenties argued that because of a death in their family they had an opportunity to greatly expand Village Solars and a new community center plan would result in a larger building with more amenities for tenants in a more central location.  They said they needed the extra time to see if their offer on Steve's father's estate would be accepted, and then to plan the bigger, better community center.  They also said none of their tenants had complained about the lack of a community center so far.

LaVigne, Councilwoman Katrina Binkewicz, and Councilman Doug Dake voted in favor of the waiver, with Wetmore voting no.  Councilwoman Andra Benson was not present at that meeting.

The unsigned flyer that was circulated claimed that Steve Lucente's $8,400 donation to the Lansing Republican Party motivated LaVigne's 'deciding vote'.  The accusations have been circulating around town and on social media, but became part of the public record Wednesday when several speakers attended to speak out in favor of, or against LaVigne and the Lucentes.

Before the public 'privilege of the floor' portion of the meeting Councilwoman Katrina Binkewicz read a statement saying that established procedure for personnel matters, including elected officials as well as employees or members of other boards, is to suspend the public meeting so that town officials including board members and the Town Attorney can discuss the issues privately, one of the only exceptions in the Open Meetings law.

"This has been and remains true to this day, including under the Town's Ethics Local Law, Article 18 of the General Municipal Law, and the Open Meetings Law contained in the Public Officer's Law, regardless of whether the complaint or matter was speculative, supported, or true or false," she said.  "Thus the matter of campaign donations and speculation of improper effect, supported or not, are not matters for deliberation or discussion in this meeting.  The Board should discuss this matter in executive session, and there consider its options of investigation, referral, closure, or otherwise."

Binkewicz moved that the discussion be tables in the public meeting, and that the matter, along with a second personnel matter be addressed in executive session.  The Board voted 5-0 in favor of the motion, and decided to wait until the public meeting was finished before conducting the executive session, a standard practice for the Lansing Board.

Rocco LucenteRocco Lucente

But Rocco Lucente wanted to defend his family.  Binkewicz interrupted early in his statement, noting the Board had just voted to table such discussion.  But Lucente said he was speaking about the "slander" that was being circulated rather than the specific accusation against LaVigne.  On the grounds that Lucente was defending his family and his company all five board members agreed he would be allowed to make his statement.

He said that LaVigne's vote was not the deciding vote because it would have been 2-1 if Ed had not voted.  Lucente said that not one tenant had complained about the delay of the community center.  He said that whoever was responsible for the flyer has brought "street fight politics to our nice little community, and you should be deeply ashamed."

"Do these people mean to imply that donating to the 'wrong' political party is a form of corruption?  And that Ed's vote was bought?  This is serious libel," Lucente charged. "I demand that the anonymous person who is responsible for this slander step forward and retract it.  In over 50 years of working with the Town we've only had one no vote on any issue from any board member, among dozens, if not hundreds of votes that have come before the Town of Lansing over the decades.  Never in the history of Lansing politics has such a dirty tactic been deployed in service of winning an election."

He concluded, saying "This grotesque, coordinated character assassination is designed to smear a member of this board and to scare us away from ever participating in our community again."

Once Lucente had finished, six other speakers also addressed the issue.

Lisa Ruzicka, clearly inebriated, insisted on ignoring the tabled topic, shouting accusations directly at LaVigne, despite board members' admonishments that she was out of line.  She claimed LaVigne had taken the campaign contribution, and implied her appeal last March to stop the Lansing Rod & Gun Club from moving shooting ranges near her home wouldn't have failed if she had contributed to his campaign.

"If Tim and I had given you a campaign finance (sic), would you have voted in favor of not taking our home and our security, our property value, and our health away from us in allowing the Rod and Gun Club to move next door to us?"

That appeal was denied bu the Zoning Board of Appeals, not the Town Board.  Binkewicz noted that the Town agencies had strictly followed the law in that matter, but Ruzicka claimed the laws were 'neglected' by town officials.

Other speakers spoke in support of the Lucentes, while still others spoke of the issue as an ethics violation.  Ted Laux challenged Lucente's claim that LaVigne's vote was not necessary to pass the resolution, saying that three yes votes are required to pass a resolution, even when the full board is not present and that if LaVigne had recused himself from that vote it would not have passed.

Town Clerk Debbie Munson, Deputy Clerk Jessie Hall and Town Bookkeeper/Personnel Officer Charmagne Rumgay had researched the issue and concluded that only two votes, the majority of those board members present, were needed to pass a resolution.  But Thursday morning she followed up on Laux's assertion and found he was, in fact, correct.  Munson called an Association of Towns attorney Thursday morning, who told her that the law requires a majority of the full board, not just those members present.  A quorum is required to hold a public meeting, and that number is enough to make the proceedings of a meeting valid.  But a majority of the whole board is required to pass a resolution.

Thursday morning Munson told the Star, "We do need a positive three votes.  If there are only three people at the meeting all three would have to vote yes to pass a resolution by general municipal law."

Village Solars project engineer Larry Fabroni said that despite acquiring the waiver, the Lucentes have decided to build the smaller community center on the original location.

"Ironically, you may soon hear that we're going to build the community building where were going to build it in the first place, just to get away from all the innuendo that's gone on here," he said. "We'll build it in a way that we can convert it to residential some day if we're able to build a bigger center.  It's really unfortunate that it became politics instead of recognizing what good community has been, and an added resource to the people that live in Lansing."

Tompkins County Republican Party Chairman and Lansing Republican Committee member Mike Sigler said he raises money for the party, which is part of what political parties do.  He lamented that politics have come between people in a small town who know each other.

After the flyer materialized, LaVigne defended himself on Facebook, saying that the election will depend on whether voters rely on 'perception' or 'facts and accomplishments. 

"The FACTS speak for themselves and not the opinions!" he wrote.

But he did not respond to the accusations in the public meeting Wednesday.  During the closed Executive Session that included the full Town Board and Town Attorney, he volunteered to go before the Town's five member Ethics Board, to clear his name.

That board has five members, including former School Business Administrator Tom Jones, who chairs the board, County Assessor Jay Franklin, community members  community members Hurf Sheldon and Kevin Wyszkowski, and LaVigne himself.  Thursday morning LaVigne said that he would, obviously, recuse himself and that a fifth member would have to be found to fill his space.  It is unlikely that hearing will take place before election day.

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