Before the Tusten Town Board meeting on April 9, an email from Councilman Ned Lang had circulated, bringing up charges against the Tusten Heritage Community Garden and Big Eddy Farmstand project, a project run by Andrea Reynosa, Lang’s opponent in the November election.
During the meeting in the town hall, Reynosa read her report from the Tusten Local Development Corporation (TLDC), as usual, and once she finished Lang brought up the charges and explained them.
He said, “It came to light that the employees [of the garden] were paid as independent contractors and had no deductions taken from their pay, which is a huge violation of New York State and Federal Department of Labor law.”
In his email he stated, “In order for someone to qualify as an independent contractor there are very strict rules, such as the independent contractor has to set their own hours, behavioral control, financial control as well as many other aspects that separates employees from independent contractors.”
He also called into question the fact that Reynosa had moved work from the community garden behind the library to property on her farm as there was an issue with getting water to the garden. He said this raises issues of ethics, as Reynosa was on the town board and paid the employees for work on her property.
He said he has contacted the IRS out of Binghamton, and they are looking into it. “We want transparency,” Lang said. “We want to know exactly what happened and we want an audit.”
Supervisor Carol Ropke Wingert responded that before they started the garden they had contacted their accountants, Cooper, Neimann & Co., and found that it was fine to issue 1099s, for those who worked at the garden. She said, “We more than welcome an audit; we’ve got nothing to hide and we’ve always been about transparency and open government.”
Town attorney Jeffrey Clemente, who sits at the table with the board, chimed in and said that nothing wrong was done in regards to paying those who worked on the garden. “Everything that Mr. Lang said is fictitious,” he said. “He’s been trying to sell this nonsense all last year. It’s a community garden where a bunch of high school kids voluntarily assisted and were compensated based on vouchers that they put in; in no sense were they employees. And none of this had anything to do with the town.”
He went on to say about Lang, “This is just another one of his political moves in his quest to keep running for office rather than governing the town.”
Lang retorted, “Mr. Clemente, as usual, is wrong.”
The exchange escalated into a shouting match, with the two talking over one another, until Wingert tried to put a stop to it by saying, “This conversation is over.” It continued for a bit longer until councilman Anthony Ritter diverted attention by talking about the Narrowsburg fireworks and mentioning that the flyers requesting funding have been printed.
The issue was put to rest until the public comment period. Just when it seemed the public comments were over, Tusten resident Andrea Shochet quietly raised her hand. During her comment, she said, “It’s a vegetable garden that we’re talking about here.” She went on to say, “There are different ways to handle things, you can either come together or hit the big red button. As an example of hitting a big red button it would be as if, for instance, I were to contact the Department of Elections and let them know that a newly elected official has yet to file a single campaign finance report, which is punishable either by fines leading anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, and potentially a misdemeanor. And in this age of wanting financial transparency among our board and among our town and everything else, I find it contradictory and I find it despicable.”
The newly elected official she referred to is Lang.
Are the seeds of an audit being sown? The conflict is ongoing and awaiting a resolution. At the next board meeting on May 14, the town auditor from Cooper, Neimann & Co. will speak.
This is not the only potential lawsuit that Lang and the board are involved in. During the meeting, Wingert read a letter from attorney John Hector on behalf of Lang regarding a lawsuit against the town that claims “malicious prosecution, libel, slander, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, violation of civil rights, interference with economic advantage and civil harassment.” The items of damage or injuries claimed are “loss of business time, damage to reputation, attorney’s fees and related expenses.” The claim is in reference to Lang’s legal battles regarding signs that he had attached to his properties which members of the board believe violated town code.
The disputes do not end there. Also at the meeting, it was brought up that at the March 6 meeting, Lang had voted on a resolution concerning the Narrowsburg St. Patrick’s Day parade, of which Lang was the organizer. Councilman Ritter brought to attention that this is a violation of the Tusten Code of Ethics, and that Lang should have recused himself from the vote. Lang disagreed with the claim, making the point that the parade was not a commercial enterprise. The discussion was tabled.