Trio of Walk-On Resolutions Take Aim at Mayor, and Mayor's Assistant, at Southampton Village Work Session - 27 East

Trio of Walk-On Resolutions Take Aim at Mayor, and Mayor's Assistant, at Southampton Village Work Session

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Southampton Village Hall. File Photo

Southampton Village Hall. File Photo

authorCailin Riley on May 24, 2023

A handful of resolutions on the agenda at Tuesday night’s Southampton Village Board of Trustees work session — including three that were walked on at the last minute, without Mayor Jesse Warren knowing about them — ended in 4-1 votes, with the mayor as the dissenting vote, and led to fireworks between the mayor and trustees, with a little more than three weeks remaining until the election.

Deputy Mayor Gina Arresta introduced the walk-on resolutions, and the one that caused the most controversy and debate related to Warren’s public release to The Southampton Press of a letter sent to the village in March from an attorney representing the former secretary to the mayor, Miranda Weber. The letter included detailed allegations that Weber was subject to gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and retaliation while she worked for the village, and that she is owed nearly $90,000 in outstanding pay.

The letter, which was sent to the village’s labor counsel, stated that if the village did not pursue a resolution to the matter, “we will pursue all legal avenues to obtain relief for Ms. Weber.”

Warren, who denied the allegations, was roundly condemned by the trustees for providing a copy of the letter to The Press in April. In a Letter to the Editor following the disclosure, Trustee Roy Stevenson said the mayor’s release of the letter, “despite clear written legal counsel advising against such a public disclosure,” put the village, and its taxpayers, in a precarious position, and “may have harmed the village’s ability to defend both itself and the mayor himself.”

In the letter, Stevenson added that village labor counsel Vince Toomey had advised the board that the release of the letter was a serious misstep, and he vowed that the trustees would work to figure out how to handle “the new complications that the mayor’s disclosure of privileged and confidential information created.”

The second-to-last walk-on resolution on Tuesday night appeared to be the answer the trustees came up with.

A wordy resolution, read by Village Clerk Cathy Sweeney, stated that, because of the release of the March 13 letter, if damages are awarded to Weber that are not covered by the village’s insurance carrier, the village will not provide coverage to the mayor or indemnify any damages relating to the release of the letter.

It further directed the mayor not to take any further action related to the matter that could “reasonably result in a finding that the village or its officials failed to cooperate in the defense of this claim, and/or failed to take actions to prevent further damage or injury, including but not limited to disclosing or discussing confidential information related to this case except with attorneys assigned by the village to the defense of this matter or to members of the Southampton Village trustees.”

There was heated discussion related to the resolution, and Southampton Village Attorney Andrew Preston advised the board to enter into executive session to discuss the matter before taking a vote.

Toomey, who had been invited to the meeting without Warren’s knowledge, was asked by the trustees for his opinion on whether or not it was appropriate to enter into executive session on the matter, which then led to a five-minute break for Preston and Toomey to step outside the meeting room and discuss whether or not it would be appropriate to enter into executive session.

Ultimately, they agreed to remain in public session after agreeing to strike one section from the resolution, a section that stated: “The attorneys for the claimant advised the village that the release of the letter was retaliatory and had caused further damage to their client and would bring additional claims against the village and Mayor Warren for releasing the letter.”

The resolution passed by a 4-1 vote, with Warren voting against.

He defended himself before the vote was taken.

“This strips me of any indemnification in this process,” he said. “If, God forbid, something happens, there goes my house, my business, my livelihood.”

At that point, Stevenson interjected, saying, “You should have considered that before releasing the contents of the letter. You brought this upon yourself.”

Arresta picked up on that sentiment, adding, “You put the village at great risk here by doing what you did. You took something confidential and leaked it to The Press.”

Warren responded by calling the resolution “malicious and punitive” and “the worst possible thing anyone could do.”

On Wednesday, Warren said he believed the letter was a document that the public should have.

Before the vote was taken, Toomey provided additional clarification on the resolution, saying it is not intended to be a “broad waiver to the mayor’s right to defense and indemnification of the law.”

“It doesn’t take away coverage from the mayor for any other actions, and is contingent upon the determination from the insurance carrier that he would not be indemnified for those claims,” Toomey said, referring specifically to the mayor’s actions with respect to the release of the March letter.

“The mayor is right that defense and indemnification is precious to all public employees, but the law is also very clear that it doesn’t protect actions taken outside the scope of your employment, and it doesn’t protect against reckless or malicious actions. And if the insurance carrier makes that determination that that occurred in this case, then the trustees would be in the position of saying, insurance will not pick up that coverage — what will we do with taxpayers’ money? And you have a right to make a determination under very narrow circumstances.”

After the 4-1 vote in favor of that resolution, Arresta introduced another resolution, which passed again by a 4-1 vote, counseling Assistant to the Mayor Patrick Derenze that he is not permitted to engage in political activities during work hours for the village, and that any further instance of him doing so would result in him being suspended without pay, pending further disciplinary action.

The trustees introduced the resolution after they said it came to their attention that Warren had directed Derenze to send emails inviting residents to a reelection campaign event for Warren while Dereneze was working remotely on Friday, May 19, and had also moderated a campaign event on May 21. The trustees said this constituted a violation of a federal law, because Derenze also works on grant writing as part of his job duties.

Warren said the resolution amounted to an attack on Derenze, whose work he defended. He called the resolution a “false statement done to bully, intimidate and embarrass” Derenze. Warren said the emails were sent on Friday because they had been scheduled ahead of time to auto-send. He said Derenze moderated a town hall-style Zoom event that was not a campaign event and did not include asking residents to vote for him or donate to his campaign.

Toomey said the resolution was not intended to be an attack on Derenze but rather was intended to protect him. “It’s not about Patrick,” he said. “There are serious consequences that occur when someone is engaged in political activity on work time.”

Toomey invoked the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity by public employees who are involved in grant writing. “It’s a heads up essentially, in what appears to be a hotly contested election, that everyone needs to follow the rules.”

The first walk-on resolution of the night — which also passed by a 4-1 vote — was the approval of a proposal with the Center for Governmental Research Promising Solutions to perform a study of compensation, benefits, and terms of office for elected officials, as recommended by the budget and finance committee and Planning Commission, at a cost not to exceed $5,000.

For weeks, Warren has unsuccessfully tried to put up and pass a resolution that would take away lifetime health insurance benefits for future former Village Board members with five years vested in the system. The trustees have said they want more information before taking a vote on that issue, and have accused Warren of using the issue to gain political clout, while he has taken the trustees to task for trying to hold on to the benefits program, despite the fact that several other villages, including Westhampton Beach, do not provide lifetime benefits for elected officials or have recently done away with them.

He also took them to task for spending more taxpayer money to engage a consultant to advise them on the issue. “I don’t think we need to spend more taxpayer money to determine whether or not we should get benefits for life,” Warren said.

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