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Did the Public Have a Fair Say in the Closure of the Village of Rhinebeck’s Court?

Abolition? Consolidation? Democratic participation? The future of Rhinebeck’s village court begs questions.

The Rhinebeck village court, which will be consolidated with the town court to save costs.
Hudson Valley Observer
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On the evening of September 21, the Village of Rhinebeck’s Board of Trustees voted four to one in favor of a resolution “to abolish the Justice Court.” Couched as it is in the language of police and prison abolition, the resolution was in fact perfectly in line with the status quo of municipal austerity: In order to reduce costs, the board wanted to shutter its village court in favor of consolidating operations with Rhinebeck’s remaining town court.

Nevertheless, residents were concerned. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the board’s public meetings are broadcast via Facebook, which does not allow viewers to speak up, only comment. Several commenters on the board’s September meeting questioned the resolution’s underlying research, its projected cost-savings, and most especially, the manner in which it was being adopted without greater input from the public.

“I do not know if this is a good idea or not,” says John Rossi, a village resident and former board trustee, of the resolution. “What is never a good idea is an effort to suppress the public’s voice.”

As in other municipalities up and down the Hudson Valley, the Village of Rhinebeck’s representatives and residents are struggling to keep local governance open and accountable while proceedings remain remote. And as elsewhere, the failure to meet that challenge is creating a disconnect which further frays the democratic process.

“As most people know, the state and the county and all local governments are trying to do their best to reduce government and improve efficiencies,” says Gary Bassett, mayor of the Village of Rhinebeck.

Even prior to the pandemic exacerbating budget concerns, the Village of Rhinebeck was looking for ways to cut costs. Beginning in 2017, the village participated in a study funded by the Dutchess County Municipal Consolidation and Shared Services Grant Program. The study was conducted by the Laberge Group, an engineering firm which also conducts municipal research, and focused on whether the consolidation of Rhinebeck’s village and town courts would result in operating efficiencies and reduced costs. According to its report, Laberge found that the elimination of the village court by consolidating its operations with the town court would save a combined $26,000 annually, without impairing services or requiring any layoffs.

“The recommendation out of that study was: You can improve efficiencies, improve services, reduce costs, still have the same judges do the same things that they were doing, and be in the town,” says Bassett. “Towns are required to have courts. Villages—not a lot of people know this either—villages are not required to have courts.”

(Judge William Sanchez of the Village of Rhinebeck Justice Court failed to respond to multiple requests for comment from The River. The county clerk declined to comment.)

According to Bassett, Laberge’s report was delivered to both the Town of Rhinebeck, who unanimously approved the consolidation, and to the Village of Rhinebeck Board of Trustees in September. As a matter of course, the mayor made a resolution regarding the report and consolidation during the village board’s next meeting. 

“We put it on the agenda for discussion,” says Bassett. “We held a discussion, and the decision was to go for a vote, and the vote was four to one.”

But just as swiftly as the matter appeared to be settled at the Rhinebeck village board’s September meeting, opposition to the decision-making process—if not the decision itself—quickly coalesced. Rossi has opposed the use of Facebook as the remote platform of choice due to its one-directional nature since August, his last month on the board. According to its agendas and minutes, the board adopted Facebook in May, when it began soliciting public comments via email, but these comments were not read into the record, inspiring Rossi’s opposition. While he was initially in support of the study that recommended the court consolidation, Rossi found the process by which the board attempted to follow through on that recommendation to be the exact thing he feared: a silencing of the public.

“The voice of the people was, in my view, clearly undermined,” says Rossi.

Rossi points to a number of factors undermining public participation in the question of the Rhinebeck court consolidation. According to him, notice of the September 21 village board meeting, including its agenda, was emailed to the public only three days prior. Alarmed by the agenda item to “abolish” the court, Rossi says that residents attempted to attend the public meeting in person at the village hall, where the board continues to meet, socially distanced and with masks, but they were turned away. Those who watched on Facebook and commented fared equally poorly.

“Submitted messages were not acknowledged or read aloud,” says Rossi.

Frustrated by the situation, Rossi reached out to the other Rhinebeck village residents voicing their concerns on Facebook. Together with two dozen others, he spearheaded a petition that would allow residents to vote directly on the court consolidation. According to him, the petition was submitted with more than the requisite number of signatures to the village clerk on October 19; according to Bassett, the decision should be going to a general election before the end of the year. In the meantime, the board has apparently taken notice of the discontent, scheduling two public forums, via Microsoft Teams, to discuss the consolidation further. Additionally, though board meetings remain on Facebook, residents are able to call in with their comments as of November.

While the future of Rhinebeck’s village court will now be decided directly by its residents, that of its village board meetings remains contentious. Bassett sees no alternative: According to him, Facebook will remain the remote platform of choice as the current Internet bandwidth at village hall cannot support a more two-directional alternative, like Zoom, and they’re unable to upgrade their service any further than they already have, which is double the pre-pandemic bandwidth. (The public forums were hosted remotely, not from village hall, thus their ability to utilize Microsoft Teams.) Bassett also cites the Open Meetings Law, which states that members of the public must be able to attend or, according to recent guidance from New York State, to livestream public meetings, but does not necessarily give the public the right to speak at such meetings. Besides, he sees the consolidation of the courts and the question of the board’s remote platform as unrelated.

“That’s a separate issue from the courts,” Bassett tells The River. “You’re deviating from the original discussion about the court into how we hold public forums.” 

Rossi, for his part, sees the two issues as interconnected. At the Rhinebeck village board’s August meeting, he brought up the prospect of adopting Zoom, but was countered by Bassett and other trustees who objected due to the need for an administrator, greater costs, or the necessity of literally hearing residents’ voices, when other, text-based methods for public comment were available.

“Had the board adopted a meetings platform—for example, Zoom—the public voice would have at least been heard,” says Rossi, in regards to the court consolidation. “But the board has stubbornly clung to a streaming platform—Facebook—knowing public opinion would be suppressed and limited to messaging.”

There is perhaps a more significant connection between the austerity measures of the past and those to come, as well. In considering the current shared-services agreement between Rhinebeck town and village regarding their courts, Rossi brings up an already existing shared-services agreement: that of their Internet service. According to him, it’s this agreement with the town that prevents the village from improving their bandwidth. In other words, the village is unable to efficiently carry out this latest austerity measure—due to being so severely handicapped by a previous austerity measure.