E-town FOIL controversy surges on

ELIZABETHTOWN A group of Elizabethtown residents are demanding an explanation for how their tax dollars are being spent, particularly when it comes to fuel used at the Cobble Hill golf course during the winter months. The golf course, which is municipally owned and operated, is a major source of revenue for the town. Some people were surprised to learn, however, that roughly half of the fuel delivered to the golf course annually is used during the winter months when the golf course is not in operation. All we want is some straight answers and some honest government, Malcolm Martin said in an Aug. 22 interview. Martin, proprietor of the Park Motor Inn in Elizabethtown, has submitted three Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to the town asking for information on fuel usage at the golf course and the expenditures for logging town owned land there. Martin began sending the requests in May after learning that a town employee at the golf course was using the gasoline in his own vehicle. His first FOIL request was for all utility bills for the golf course from January 2006 through April 2008. Supervisor Noel Merrihew later explained that much of the fuel was used for logging operations in the 800-acre resource management area around the Cobble Hill trail system, prompting Martin to begin looking into that as well. Harry Gough, another resident of Elizabethtown, has joined Martin in the investigation, submitting two FOIL requests of his own, one of which asks for all the expenditures and revenues from logging since 2001. Goughs wife, Margaret Bartley, has also been involved, delivering public comments at town board meetings, and alerting the Essex County district attorney and state comptrollers office about instances where the town allegedly failed to comply with the law. Withholding Records? According to the Web site for the Committee on Open Government, the arm of the New York Department of State that deals with FOIL regulations, government agencies have five business days to acknowledge a FOIL request either denying access or setting a date when access to the documents will be granted, which, in most cases, must be within 20 additional business days. Such deadlines can be extended in extraordinary cases, however. Martin said the town often failed to send a timely acknowledgement of his requests, and though he has been provided with copies of some documents, he has yet to receive the requested information in full. Both Gough and Martin have filed appeals of denial for their requests. Town board members have said that the requests are too lengthy to fulfill in such a short period of time, and suggested that their main purpose is not to gain information, but to undermine the current administration. Both Martin and Bartley, who ran against Merrihew in a previous election, deny any such intentions. During the Aug. 19 town board meeting, Merrihew stated that a budgetary transfer of $4,000 will likely be needed to pay for all the man-hours needed to properly fulfill the requests, which ask for copies of hundreds of original documents. Martin, however, says copies of the documents shouldnt be necessary. I would be satisfied if I could see a [spread] sheet. Provided its recorded properly, I dont necessarily have to receive the originals on all of this... because Im just trying to find out what the amount is, said Martin, stating that Merrihew never offered to provide him a summary of the requested information in spreadsheet form. Merrihew, however, insists that he did. Also, both Martin and Gough claim to have been denied direct access to the records on the basis that it would require supervision. This is in clear violation of NY Town law section 29(4) which states such books of account shall be public records, open and available for inspection at all reasonable hours of the day, Gough wrote in one of his appeals of denial. Where is the fuel going? Despite the fact that fuel usage at the golf course is about the same as previous years, the two still suspect impropriety. Its very alarming for a government agency to allow a person to put gasoline in their own personal vehicle with no record keeping at the site, said Martin. A visit to the Cobble Hill Golf Course confirmed that there are not accurate records kept of fuel pumped from the gasoline storage tanks there. According to maintenance manager Bruce McVale, that is mostly because the tanks have hand-crank pumps, the meters for which are not operating properly and do not accurately measure the gasoline during pumping. According to Merrihew, McVale does have permission to put fuel from the golf course tanks into his personal vehicle, but only when used for town projects. McVale frequently uses his own vehicle to travel back and forth between the golf course and the resource management area, and insists that he only puts in what he thinks he uses while working at the two sites. McVale explained that the gasoline is mostly used in a bucket-equipped Ford F-250, a town vehicle, which he estimates to get roughly four miles per gallon or less. The truck is used for trash pick-ups during the winter; once-a-week trips that McVale estimates use 19 gallons of gasoline to travel about 63 miles each time. In addition, the town vehicle is used for snow removal, keeping the town skating rink accessible to residents during the winter. They dont realize theres a lot of maintenance happening here during the winter, said McVale, explaining that the truck was also used last winter to haul several loads of brush from the golf course to the DEC-mandated burn site just over three miles away. All those trips add up, McVale said. To keep it looking nice, brush is also hauled from the resource management area, which functions as a trail system. People come from all over to ride horses here, McVale said. Most trees cut there are sold as pulp wood, while smaller trees, which cannot be sold for pulp, are processed into firewood, McVale explained. Dozens of face cords are produced each year, which the town sells to residents at $40 each. In most years, the sale of wood has resulted in significant net revenues for the town, though that does not take into account the cost of fuel used in the operation or the $15,000 spent last year to repair the bulldozer used at the resource management site. Both Merrihew and McVale feel that the town generally gets good returns from the investment it puts in to logging. Martin, however, is convinced the endeavor isnt worth it. I think they should be out of the logging business, Martin said. Especially today with the price of gasoline and fuel and everything. Also, theyre risking injury to somebody up there doing the logging, which could result in a claim against the town. They hire people for the golf course, they should stay on the golf course.

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