Conflict Of Interest Argued In Busti Town Hall Case
BUSTI – Is Joel Seachrist Busti’s town attorney? That question, raised during court proceedings Monday, is the latest in the drawn-out battle over the sale of the town hall at 121 Chautauqua Ave.
During a Supreme Court hearing in Mayville, Richard Stanton, lawyer of respondent Cara Birrittieri, alleged that as town attorney, Seachrist’s representation of Richard Thor, Busti councilman, is a conflict of interest. According to Stanton, this is because Thor’s action is brought against Darlene Nygren in her official capacity as town clerk of Busti, and the town attorney has a duty to defend representatives and offices of the town when they are sued in their official capacity.
Stanton pointed to Public Officers Law which states “No officer or employee of a state agency, member of the legislature or legislative employee should have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any business or transaction or professional activity or incur any obligation of any nature, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”
Seachrist said during the hearing he is not technically the town attorney. He is independently contracted – which Jesse Robbins, Busti supervisor, confirmed. Seachrist, therefore, can represent Thor as a private citizen, he said.
Robbins said Seachrist is an “attorney for the town.” Busti’s town law manual states that if the town doesn’t have an official town attorney it can employ an attorney to give it such professional service. The arrangement is often referred to as an “attorney for the town.” Anyone retained in that capacity is an independent contractor providing services to the town via a contract.
Birrittieri, however, says Seachrist is playing both sides against the middle.
“How can an attorney sit in front of the nameplate with ‘town attorney’ on it, advising the town on the legal matters continuously in public and now say he can sue a town official?” she asked.
She said this goes against the Code of Professional Conduct, which says “a lawyer shall not represent a client in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a public officer or employee, unless the appropriate government agency gives its informed consent, confirmed in writing, to the representation.”
During the proceedings, Seachrist said he was not suing Nygren – he was bringing the petition to court.
The Hon. Judge Deborah Chimes heard the arguments Monday. The action requests that the court find void and insufficient a petition filed with the town clerk on March 11. The petition requested that a resolution approving the sale of the town of Busti building be put to a permissive referendum.
The referendum needed 148 signatures, and 222 signatures were collected. Several of those signatures have come under fire, however.
Thor said the petition is insufficient, void and not in accordance with the provisions of the town law. This is because the preamble to the signature sheets fails to contain any protest against an act or resolution of the town board as required by the town law.
The major point Stanton argued for was the citizens’ fundamental right to a permissive referendum and the right to vote on that petition.
HISTORY OF THE
TOWN HALL ISSUE
The potential referendum is a result of Busti’s proposed sale of its current town hall and purchase of the former Tordella’s building at 125 Chautauqua Ave. The town in recent months was approached by the Jamestown Area Community Federal Credit Union, which has an expired lease on its current location. The credit union has offered $300,000 for Busti’s current town hall.
While there was support for the sale of the current town hall, voices of dissent rose when it came to the purchase of 125 Chautauqua Ave.
The more popular arguments revolved around the potential for Busti to move into Lakewood’s Anthony C. Caprino Municipal Building and outcry over taking another building off the tax roll just as one was put back on – especially when Whitmore had expressed interest in purchasing the building.
Supporters of the town board’s decision countered by pointing out the move into the Tordella’s building was the most cost-effective option and saying that the town shouldn’t put money into a building it doesn’t own – especially when the village hall is not handicapped-accessible.