Town Celebrates Open Government Week, Continues Commitment to Best Practices and Transparency

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Town of Fishkill

MAY 13, 2022

A zoning map of the Town of Fishkill

Town of Fishkill Celebrates Open Government Week With Adoption of Local Law to Increase Transparancy

As part of the Town's ongoing commitment to open government and best practices, the Town Board voted unanimously at the May 4, 2022 Town Board meeting to adopt a Local Law amending Chapter 50 of the Town Code, creating a notice of code interpretation.

New York State law specifies that only a Zoning Administrator can render interpretations of Zoning code. Such interpretations may be requested by a project sponsor, resident or Board of the Town, such as the Town Board or Planning Board.

Upon the issuance of such interpretation, anyone aggrieved by the decision has 60 days in which to appeal the interpretation to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which then determines if the interpretation shall stand or be stricken.

However, until now there has been no requirement that any notice be issued of code interpretations. This can result in an aggrieved individual missing the 60-day window in which to appeal the decision and being left without recourse for an interpretation which they would like to challenge.

"That won't happen anymore," Town Supervisor Ozzy Albra said this week. "In the past there was no requirement to notify neighboring properties about an interpretation of code. Now, moving forward, the owners of all properties within 500 feet of a property which is subject to a code interpretation will be notified. If they want to appeal that decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals, they will be able to act within that 60-day window."

The Local Law was drafted after the Town Board heard the complaints of residents who expressed frustration that they were not informed of interpretations until after the 60-day window had already closed, and were moved to take action. Town Attorney Stephen Gaba put the law together at the Town Board's request. Councilman Carmine Istvan said the law was well-written and furthers the Town's commitment to transparency.

"This is a really good piece of code, and it makes the process much more open and transparent for people who might previously have felt excluded," Councilman Istvan said. "A big thanks goes to Mr. Gaba the attorney for writing it."

Supervisor Albra agreed.

"Every law we pass in favor of transparency and open government is another step toward my goal of maintaining the most open government in New York State," Supervisor Albra said.

National Open Government Week

National Open Government Week

National Open Government Week is May 16 to May 20, 2022. This week is set aside for governments to share ideas and progress on open government and transparency, and develop new ideas to improve operations and procedures.

Town Supervisor Ozzy Albra said the principles of open government are embraced in the Town of Fishkill.

"Truth be told, every week is open government week in the Town of Fishkill," Supervisor Albra said. "It's been that way since day one for me, and I've had the privilege of serving alongside Town Councilmembers who share that same goal."

Open government involves four main facets, Supervisor Albra said.

"From my perspective, open government is combination of four things: first you have a perspective to prioritize the citizens above all else; second you have the ability for the citizens to understand and participate in the process; third you have public access to information; and last you have the internal policies which govern our day-to-day operations, such as how Town employees interact with the citizens and with each other," Supervisor Albra said. "You can't really have open government without all of these together."

Supervisor Albra said the recent Code Interpretation Notice law falls under both the second and third categories of open government.

"With this law we're really accomplishing two goals. We're interacting with residents about what is going on with code interpretations, and in doing so we're enabling the citizens to understand and participate in the planning and zoning process, something which is complicated and can be a hassle if you don't have these polices in place," Supervisor Albra said.

Record of Legislative Wins for Open Government

Heading into Open Government Week 2022, Supervisor Albra took time Friday to tout the Town's record of passing laws and adopting policies to improve open government since he began to serve in 2020, and the several Town Councilmembers who have made that progress possible. Learn more about the progress the Town has made in each of these open government categories below:

Putting Citizens First

Supervisor Albra says a shift toward open government requires a perspective that puts the 25,000 residents of Fishkill first.

"The residents have to come first, and the decisions and procedures of this Town government need to reflect that," Supervisor Albra said. "That's something I saw was lacking, where the way the Town was set up in the past really benefitted developers and placed a lot of burdens on the citizens of the Town. I've made a priority to take the power away from developers and give it back to the people who call Fishkill home."

To accomplish that goal, the Town has undertaken a number of major legislative items in the past two years, to shift the burden from residents to developers while supporting responsible development that benefits the residents, Supervisor Albra said.

"The laws we had on the books really put the interests of developers first, and that's apparent by looking at the development in Fishkill in the past 20 years, this was a real hotspot for big developers and high-density housing," Supervisor Albra said. "We're now dealing with the consequences of those laws and the strain it has put on the citizens of the Town, in terms of traffic, schools, quality of life and water and sewer issues. A real shift was needed."

- Revisions to Chapters 150, 132 and 146 of the Town Code in July of 2021 changed zoning, subdivision and water laws to protect the quality of life of Fishkill residents. The legislation closed loopholes and addressed weaknesses and ambiguity in the code, and was the product of thorough review and months of hearings and public comment, with the purpose of the changes being to shift the balance of power away from developers and back to the residents of Fishkill.

Former Town Councilman served on the Town Board at that time, and summed up the process, applauding the Board for its united vision and action to put the residents of Fishkill first.

"What we did was we discussed it, we reviewed it, and then we discussed it again," Former Councilman Brachfeld said. "I think we did this the right way, by a fair and thorough process."

Former Councilman Brachfeld said the legislation the product of the Board collectively putting the interest of the Town first.

"When you work as a team, as we did throughout this process, you end up with consensus," Brachfeld said.

- In October of 2021, the Board adopted further laws to protect residents' rights against developers, and preserve public health and community identity. The Board voted unanimously to protect residents' health with an aquifer protection law developed by Town Planner Liz Axelson of CPL Engineering, and preserve the historical and cultural resources that make up Fishkill's remarkable identity as one of the key locations in the founding of our nation.

Councilwoman Louise Daniele has taken a particular interest in resolving issues related to water and sewer service in the Town, and took a lead role in supporting the aquifer protection law. Councilwoman Daniele said the law helps alleviate issues caused by prior development decisions while supporting sustainable and responsible future development initiatives.

"What we've had to deal with as a Town is the result of decisions and mistakes in the past," Councilwoman Daniele said. "With this law, we can undo much of that harm and ensure future generations have clean, healthy and reliable sources of drinking water."

Attorney Andrew Campanelli drafted the Town's comprehensive Cell Tower ordinance.

- In December of 2021, the Town adopted a cell tower ordinance. The law was drafted for the Town by attorney Andrew Campanelli, a leading cellular communications attorney in the nation. 

The law stemmed from resident concerns about cell towers and the proliferation of 5G communication facilities encroaching on residential neighborhoods. While Mr. Campanelli advised the Town Board that it cannot prohibit such towers altogether, federal law does empower the Town to regulate where such structures can be built. The law protects residents' quality of life by requiring cellular communication providers to establish true need for any tower or facility.

"Just because a carrier comes in or a site developer comes in and says 'We have a significant gap,' you don't have to take that at face value," Campanelli said. "They need to offer proof, and it's up to the Planning Board to determine as a question of fact, whether or not they've proven they need that facility at that location."

Councilmember Louise Daniele praised the merits of the law, and Mr. Campanelli's thorough approach to craft the strongest law possible.

"We used the most well-versed lawyer in the country who specializes in cell towers to help us draft a law to protect our residents as best as we can," Councilmember Daniele said. "They can't just walk all over the residents as they have done in other towns because they want a facility in a particular spot. Now they'll have to follow the rules we have established."

The May 4 law is another example of the Town putting residents first, Councilman Istvan said.

"If residents feel like they don't have access to the process, then we fail as a government," Councilman Istvan said. "We have to put the residents first or we aren't doing our jobs."

Citizen Participation in Government

The Town has spent more than two years in a continued initiative to increase the ability for residents to understand and participate in all facets of government.

Beginning with his first meeting as Town Supervisor, Supervisor Albra adjusted the order of Town Board meetings, changing previous policy by permitting residents to speak about general Town items at the beginning of the meeting, and removing time limits on how long they can address the Board.

"It used to be that if you wanted to speak you'd have to sit through the whole meeting, sometimes three hours, and you would only be able to speak for a couple of minutes before you ran out of time," Supervisor Albra said.

Now, residents can speak freely at the beginning of Town Board meetings and bring their ideas, questions and concerns to the Board, a practice which has since extended to the Planning Board.

"When I first started the only time a member of the public was permitted to speak at a Planning Board meeting was during a Public Hearing, and that's a problem," Councilmember Daniele said. "By the time a project gets to the Public Hearing phase the developer will have already answered all of the Planning Board's questions, so if the residents have a problem or a concern, it's basically already too late because the site plan will be nearly finalized by that point."

Now, residents can speak at meetings, a big step toward open government, Councilmember Daniele said. 

"If you look at the Town the biggest concerns residents have are development, traffic and water, and the Planning Board deals with all three," Councilmember Daniele said. "If you want to be an open government then you have be a government open to hearing from the people you serve, and not just the developers who want approval for their project. What we've done is added the opportunity for people to speak, so residents can comment on the project proposal when it's introduced instead of waiting until the Public Hearing. This is a huge step in the right direction."

The Town is currently updating its Comprehensive Plan for the first time since 2009.

- For the first time since 2009, the Town of Fishkill is updating its Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is a master document which states clearly the Town's vision and objectives for the future development and sustainability of our community. When the update was announced, the Town created a committee which is undertaking the process with the help of Town Planner Liz Axelson.

The committee was advertised on the Town Website, social media and through eNewsletters, with nearly two dozen volunteers selected. The same practice has been used for other Town committees, including the Community Policing Advisory Committee and the recently-formed Veterans Committee.

Councilman John Forman is one of the Town Board liaisons on the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee. Councilman Forman said he's pleased with the progress the Committee has made so far and offered a status update on the process on Friday.

"The survey period has ended, and we recently had our May Zoom meeting. We're going to have two meetings in June," Councilman Forman said. "The first meeting will be to review the results of the survey and get a sense of the feelings of the residents who responded, and then the second meeting will be to use that information to move forward in the process."

- The Town took an unprecedented step last year by giving residents the veto power on Town decisions to sell public land in the Town. Previously, the sale of Town land was determined solely by the Town Board, requiring residents opposed to the sale to gather petitions with hundreds of signatures to force a public vote on the matter. Moving forward, any sale of Town land requires the Town Board to initiate a public vote itself, removing the burden from taxpayers and offering residents a unique opportunity to make the final decision to approve or reject any potential sale of Town-owned property.

Central Hudson representatives speak to a packed Town Hall about resident billing issues.

Access to Information

While many of the accomplishments above achieve the goal of improving residents' access to important information, there are additional accomplishments which specifically make it easier for citizens to obtain information about the goings-on at Town Hall.

- Supervisor Albra adopted an open-door policy at Town Hall upon taking office. Prior to his tenure, there was no designated workspace in Town Hall for Town Councilmembers, and Supervisor Albra rectified this deficiency immediately by creating an office space for Councilmembers with a phone, printer, file space and a computer workstation. Since then, Councilmembers have had full access to Town Hall, to Town staff and to the information they need to make decisions affecting the citizens of Fishkill.

Councilman Istvan said the work space helps Councilmembers with day-to-day work.

"Having a space in Town Hall means I can come in and handle business, and that helps me do my job as a Councilman more effectively," he said.

- The Town has also taken strides with regards to records access, making it easier to submit Freedom of Information requests by implementing an online portal which residents can access here

- In 2020 the Town Board passed a law to establish stronger Public Hearing notification. Residents within 500 feet of a property receive notice of a Public Hearing in front of the Planning Board regarding land use applications, but prior to 2020 the Town Board had no such requirement when it held hearings on land use. Now, the same rules which establish Public Hearing notice are extended to the Town Board as well, increasing residents' ability to know what matters the Town is considering and offering them the chance to participate.

- Town Board meetings are a source of important information, as the Board routinely invites organizations and individuals to speak about issues affecting Fishkill. In 2022 alone, the Town Board has hosted presentations from Central Hudson regarding resident concerns due to billing issues, the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail to update residents on the development of a scenic nature trail network by the Hudson River, and members of the Dutchess County Veterans community to discuss the proposed shutdown of Castle Point and to organize veterans in opposition to the proposal. Councilman Brian Wrye said these presentations, in addition to being informative, help foster community and demonstrate the Town's commitment to engaging with residents.

"I think when you look at how well-attended these meetings are, you reach the natural and correct conclusion that the residents want to be informed, and I think anything we can do to bring in the experts and the people on the front lines of important issues, to give that information directly to the residents, is a good thing and something we're all committed to doing," Councilman Wrye said.

Councilman Wrye and Councilman Forman have spent the past months organizing a drug and addiction awareness presentation. That presentation will take place on Wednesday, May 18 during the 7p.m. Town Board meeting at Town Hall. The presentation will feature speakers from the Town of Fishkill Police Department, Beacon Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Dutchess County Sheriff's Office and the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health. Topics of the presentation include awareness of drug abuse, emergency and non-emergency treatment, and the proper recognition of substance abuse as an illness with avenues for treatment and recovery.

"Not just in our area but across our country, we are seeing more and more people struggling and losing battles against addiction," Councilman Wrye said. "I think even one drug-related death is too much, and the Town is willing to do anything we can to give people the information they need to avoid those tragic outcomes by identifying ways to recovery."

The Town has launched a YouTube channel.

- Earlier this year, the Town took a big step to make it easier for residents to watch Town Board meetings by creating a YouTube channel. Town meetings and special events are now uploaded to the channel within 48 hours of each meeting taking place. With YouTube's integrated closed captioning system, residents can follow along with subtitles on the videos in real time, and those who prefer another language can translate the captions into more than 100 languages with a simple click of the mouse.

Councilman Carmine Istvan was motivated to develop the system after a conversation with a private citizen. Teaming up with webmaster Debbie Colonna and Town videographer Pete Skorewicz, the trio launched an operational channel in quick order.

"When I spoke to this resident, a light bulb went off and I knew I wanted to deliver on this idea," Councilman Istvan said. "But it was a team effort getting everything in line and I can't thank Debbie and Pete enough for their hard work to make it happen."

- The Town has also made itself more transparent than ever through its weekly eNewsletter system, the very system which delivered this update to your inbox. Powered through GovDelivery, this eNewsletter provides weekly updates to citizens on important Town matters, as well as an insight into the everyday activities elected officials take on behalf of residents.

Weekly eNewsletters are prepared by secretary Greg Totino, who curates photos and updates from Town Councilmembers and assembles them into a newsletter. Additionally, the Town sends updates on urgent matters of business, such as water service interruptions, storm warnings and other matters of public health and safety. Councilman Istvan credits the popularity of the newsletter to a desire from residents to see their local government at work.

"I think these newsletters are popular because the citizens of Fishkill are engaged and want to see their elected officials engaged as well," Councilman Istvan said.

Supervisor Albra agreed, recognizing the Town's obligation to keep residents informed.

"The whole concept of open government is about the fact that the citizens of the Town of Fishkill have a right to know what the government is doing on their behalf, and we have a duty to provide them with that information," he said. "That's exactly what we do with the newsletters, where every Councilmember has the chance to let the residents know what they've been up to and we can proactively inform the residents about matters that affect their quality of life."

Government Policy

In 2020, Supervisor Albra introduced a proposal to adopt a limit of two terms for Town Supervisor and Town Board members at his first meeting as Town Supervisor. The proposal was met with full support of all Board Members who agreed term limits are an effective way to ensure a regular influx of new ideas, and opportunity for new individuals to become involved in public service. The measure was adopted in March of 2020, one of only a handful of municipal term limit laws in the State of New York, and among the most stringent. Read about the law and its adoption here.

The Town has undertaken a number of other policy decisions to foster an open and transparent system that builds public trust.

- In 2021, the Town launched the Community Policing Advisory Committee to comply with New York State Police Reform. The committee comprised more than two dozen members of the Fishkill community, including the faith and law enforcement community and a diverse group of citizens eager to be involved in the process. The committee developed a Police Reform Plan to further improve operations at the Town PD, and this was adopted by the Town Board and can be found on the Town Website.

- The Town has also adopted more than a dozen internal policies designed to make the Town an open, safe environment for employees and members of the public. These include revisions to the Town hiring policy to ensure fair hiring practices and eliminate nepotism, strong policies governing sexual harassment and workplace violence, and a whistleblower policy to protect any Town employee who comes forward to report any acts of wrongdoing.

"The Town’s new hiring policy gives new opportunities to all Fishkill residents to be able to apply for non-civil-service positions within the Town government, and all non-civil-service job postings are now available for viewing on the Town website, social media and television station," Supervisor Albra said at the time. "Additionally, the Town has implemented a new whistleblower policy, and this sets a new standard of ethics for the Town of Fishkill. This policy provides protection for any employee to come forward if they believe there is any unethical or illegal behavior taking place in the Town government. This policy lays out the procedure to bring information forward during this situation and protect the employee from retaliation."

Supervisor Albra congratulates Councilmen John Forman, Carmine Istvan and Brian Wrye at their swearing in.

Listening to Residents is the Key to Progress

For more than two years, the Town Board has been taking steps to improve the Town. That process continues this year, and one constant element to the progress has been the eagerness of Town Board members to listen to the questions and concerns of the residents.

"As a private citizen who attended Board meetings for years, I never felt invited to participate and I never felt like my opinions and feedback were welcomed," Supervisor Albra said. "The difference is really like night and day, and I'm encouraged every day by how much my fellow councilmembers listen to the residents. The citizens will tell us where and how we need to improve, and by listening to them we can create a more open government that gives better results for the citizens of Fishkill."

Supervisor Albra said he is grateful for the chance to serve with dedicated Councilmembers.

"I want to thank my former colleagues Ori Brachfeld, Jacqueline Bardini, Kenya Gadsden and Joe Buono for their service in the past, and my current partners Louise Daniele, John Forman, Carmine Istvan and Brian Wrye for sharing the same goals and helping bring Fishkill to new heights," Supervisor Albra said. "I'm proud of what we have accomplished so far and excited to achieve even more victories for Fishkill in the future."

Open government is a process and a practice, and the Town will continue to find ways to become more open and transparent in the future. For the next year, Supervisor Albra says the Town Board has begun discussions of revamping the Town website, making it more visually pleasing and functional. The Town plans to include funds in the 2023 budget to achieve this, and residents can look forward to seeing weekly departmental reports included on the new website, to grant an even more transparent look into the daily goings-on of the Town government.

As always, Supervisor Albra encourages residents with questions, concerns or ideas on open government to contact himself or the Town Board at any time. Residents can express their ideas at Town meetings, email the Supervisor at or call Town Hall at (845) 831-7800 ext. 3309.