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Ralph Peterson

April 10, 2014 - 1:57pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

Ralph Peterson, the controversial mayor of Corfu, is now the former mayor.

Peterson turned in a one-sentence letter of resignation effective Monday.

His resignation follows an eight-month-long medical leave and comes after the village board put forward a budget proposal reducing the mayor's salary to $4 per year.

For nearly two years, Peterson and board members have been locked in a tangle over his conduct in office, including controversies over setting up an office in the mayor's office, his request for passwords to employee computers and keys to locked file cabinets.

Some board members suspected Peterson of trying to run interference for his friend, former village justice Robert Alexander.

Alexander was in the midst of his own controversy after it was discovered through a comptroller's audit that his daughter, and former court clerk, Brandi Watts, was stealing court funds.

She eventually admitted to stealing more than $10,000. As part of the plea deal, charges of coercion and official misconduct were dismissed against Alexander provided that he resign from his justice position in Pembroke (he'd previously not run for reelection in Corfu).

Peterson became the target of calls for his resignation and efforts to figure out how to remove him from office. In the midst of the kerfuffle, Peterson was reportedly hospitalized and a short time later, he turned in a doctor's note putting himself on medical leave.

No word yet on how Corfu's mayor position will be replaced.

There's a public hearing on the proposed budget scheduled for April 21.

September 9, 2013 - 7:55pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

A concern about spending taxpayer money has prompted the Village of Corfu Board to assign trustees Art Ianni and Keith Busch the task of contacting Mayor Ralph Peterson to find out if he intends to take a leave of absence.

Peterson did not attend Monday's village board meeting.

The village received a copy of a doctor's note Aug. 29 that said Peterson was advised to take a leave of absence through the end of the year, but Peterson has not communicated to the trustees or anybody else official whether he intends to follow the doctor's advice.

There's been no communication from him since.

"We need something signed by him," Bielec said.

Deputy Mayor David Bielec suggested the board have Village Attorney Mark Boylan contact Peterson to clarify the leave of absence situation and reiterate the board's request that Peterson resign from his post.

Ianni asked if he could just contact the mayor himself.

"If you think you can make headway, go ahead," Bielec said.

Busch said rather than spend money on an attorney, both he and Ianni should contact Peterson, he said.

"We don't want to spend too much taxpayer money," Busch said.

He took the same stand on the notion of filing a petition to the Supreme Court to have Peterson removed.

"The court procedure, from what I understand, is very expensive," Busch said.

Bielec said Boylan told him it only has a 50-50 chance of succeeding.

Peterson has been under fire throughout the first year of his first term, being accused of lying to the board, harassing employees, exercising authority he doesn't have and trying to cover up for his friend Robert Alexander. Alexander is a former village justice. His daughter, Brandi Watts, was indicted on grand larceny charges for allegedly stealing more than $10,000 in court funds while working as a clerk for Alexander.

Peterson would continue to draw, by law, his mayoral stipend, while on medical leave. Trustee Ken Laurer said he continues to work at his day job.

Peterson is reportedly suffering from medical issues related to stress. He was reportedly hospitalized for a time prior to trustees receiving his doctor's note.

For prior Ralph Peterson coverage, click here.

August 31, 2013 - 2:19pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

Corfu Mayor Ralph Peterson has a doctor's note excusing him from official duties for the next four months.

It's unclear, however, if Peterson intends to follow his doctor's advice and take a leave of absence.

Peterson's girlfriend reportedly dropped the note off at the village hall on Thursday. There was no letter with the doctor's note indicating what Peterson intended to do.

The note from a Pembroke doctor reads simply, "To Whom it May Concern: Ralph Peterson is a patient in our practice who has been advised to take a medical leave of absence until January 2, 2014."

Trustee Ken Lauer said he's unsure himself if Peterson is taking a leave of absence or just had the note dropped off.

"Our assumption initially was this was him stating he wouldn't be back until January second, but upon reflection I think we need a formal letter stating as much," Lauer said.

Lauer said Sandra Thomas, village clerk, sent a note to village attorney Mark Boylan on Friday asking whether the note should be treated as a notice of a leave of absence, but Boylan has not yet responded.

Peterson's first nine months in office have been tumultuous with numerous controversies. Within the past month, trustees voted unanimously to ask that he resign.

If Peterson didn't resign, the trustees voted, they would seek his ouster through the NYS Supreme Court.

On Monday, after learning that Peterson was hospitalized, reportedly for a stress-related condition, the board agreed to delay petitioning the State Supreme Court until Peterson was in better health.

Lauer said Peterson's doctor's note is just a variable in the process, but as far as he's concerned, the board should continue to pursue the mayor's resignation or seek his removal from office.

August 26, 2013 - 10:15pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

The trustees of the Village of Corfu voted 4-0 on Monday to delay filing a petition with 4th Appellate Division of the NYS Supreme Court for the removal of Mayor Ralph Peterson from office.

Peterson is reportedly hospitalized and under observation by doctors. Peterson has reportedly told trustees and others that his undisclosed condition is related to stress.

After a closed session, Deputy Mayor David Bielec announced the board's decision to delay sending in the petition. The delay is intended to give Peterson time for his health to improve. The trustees want him to meet with Village Attorney Mark Boylan so Boylan can ascertain how Peterson intends to respond to the trustees' demand that he resign.

There was no response from Peterson to the board's demand for a resignation letter by 5 p.m. last Friday.

"We don't want to take any action until he's out of the hospital," Bielec said. "We want to discuss it within and get a firm decision before we go through the court procedure. It's a very expensive process and you can't know the outcome until you get there."

Trustee Art Ianni also asked the board to reconsider its aggressive approach to trying and recover more than $10,000 in missing court funds.

The trustees believe that regardless of how the funds went missing -- former court clerk Brandi Watts is accused of stealing it -- former village justice Robert Alexander is legally responsible to reimburse the village for the shortage.

Watts is the daughter of Alexander.

"Based on our budget, based on our court budget, this (the $10,000) is a small percentage of dollars," Ianni said. "I don't mind trying to recover it, but it's the kill zone we're looking at when it comes to the families and actions that might come out. I would like to ask the board to take another look at what potentially could happen from our actions. ... We could recover $10,000 and find out we destroyed two families. Is this something we could have some compassion about and say, 'Look, they've lost their jobs and their reputations?' "

When asked, though, Ianni said he would still vote yes on any motion trying to recover the funds.

August 24, 2013 - 9:49am
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.
Mayor Ralph Peterson (file photo)

Corfu Mayor Ralph Peterson did not respond to an Aug. 16 letter from Village Attorney Mark Boylan demanding his resignation.

The letter was sent to Peterson at the direction of the board of trustees and alleges Peterson has taken several actions not in the best interest of the village.

Peterson was given a deadline of 5 p.m., Aug. 23, to submit his resignation or face a petition to the appellate division of the NYS Supreme Court seeking his removal from office.

It will not necessarily be easy to convince the court to remove an elected official from office. In prior cases, justices have ruled that removal under Section 36 of the Public Officers Law is a "drastic remedy."

According to a ruling in 2011 on an attempt to remove the mayor of the Village of Middleburgh, the trustees seeking Peterson's ouster will need to build a case that shows "unscrupulous conduct or gross dereliction of duty or conduct that connotes a pattern of misconduct and abuse of authority."

Actions that are considered "minor neglect" or "administrative oversights" and even some violations of the law do not rise to the level of misconduct serious enough for the "drastic remedy."

If the removal case against Peterson goes forward, it will be up to a panel of justices in the 4th Appellate Division to determine if the case presented against him is sufficient.

Boylan's letter to Peterson probably lays out the case the trustees will try to make against the mayor.

The letter accuses Peterson of:

  • A general pattern of obstruction and interference with village board attempts to hold Judge Robert Alexander and his daughter Brandi Watts, a former court clerk, accountable for court funds found to be missing by a state audit. "It's clear your relationship with the judge has influenced many of your decisions in this matter."
  • Peterson is accused of withholding a settlement offer letter from an attorney representing part-time police officers who have threatened a lawsuit against the village over pay and scheduling issues. Peterson reportedly received the letter in May but kept knowledge of the letter to himself until August despite repeated requests by trustees for updates on the threatened suit. During an Aug. 12 closed session meeting, Peterson allegedly told trustees, with Boylan in the room, that he wanted the suit to go forward so the village's insurance company would pay off the officers.
  • During his time in office, Peterson is accused of trying to use his power as mayor to retaliate against former Deputy Mayor Al Graham over a long history of disagreements by getting Graham removed from his job as supervisor, working for Camden Group, of the Corfu sewer plant. Peterson allegedly threatened to "see to it" that Camden's contract with Corfu would be terminated if Graham was not removed.
  • Peterson is also accused of harassing and intimidating village employees Sandra Thomas, clerk, and Denise Beal, deputy clerk. The letter states that Peterson's actions have subjected the village to potential litigation.
  • During his time in office, Peterson is accused of abusing his authority several times, including hiring police officers without board approval and renewing village insurance policies without board consent.

In example cases we can find, courts have shown some reluctance for removing elected officials.

In a 1976 case, a justice wrote:

The court certainly recognizes the sacred right of the people to choose their elected officials. Section 36 of the Public Officers Law is in no way intended to interfere with this vital aspect of democratic society. Rather, this section has been enacted to protect the citizens from an elected official who by his misconduct, malfeasance, maladministration or malversation, abuses his public trust, harms the public interest and violates his oath of office.

The case cites a prior case with this observation:

The intent of the law is to bestow on the courts discretion to draw a line between an actual intentional breach and mere oversight. Thus, certain administrative oversights and municipal accounting deficiencies by the Mayor of a village, though clearly technical violations of village law, were found attributable to the Mayor's inexperience and did not constitute grounds for removal. (Matter of Pisciotta, supra.) Had the deficiencies continued unabated, such continuation could be found to constitute an intentional disregard of duty.

Removal of an elected official by the court, however, is not without precedent. In 1997, Victor R. Grant, supervisor of the Town of Lake Luzerne was removed from office.

In that case, Grant was found to have engaged in a willful conflict of interest by acting as insurance broker for the town's insurance policy, drawing commissions on the sale and renewal of the policy.

August 15, 2013 - 11:15pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

Corfu Mayor Ralph Peterson is going to receive a letter from the village attorney demanding his resignation.

If he doesn't resign, Mark Boylan, village attorney, is instructed to contact the appellate division of the NYS Supreme Court to begin the process of trying to remove Peterson from office.

Corfu's trustees voted 3-1, with Peterson supplying the no vote and Trustee Keith Busch absent, to take steps to remove Peterson from office.

While there's a long string of complaints that trustees and village residents have about Peterson, the latest alleged action that has angered trustees is an alleged admission by Peterson that he withheld an important letter from the village because he wanted to see a lawsuit against the village proceed.

This allegation came out after a closed session where trustees -- without Peterson, who was barred from the closed session -- discussed their options in the wake of recent events involving the lawsuit, village personnel and an alleged threat made by former village justice Robert Alexander.

Corfu trustees held an emergency board meeting on these topics this evening.

After Boylan raised the allegation that Peterson withheld the letter to perpetuate the lawsuit, Peterson denied it.

Trustee Ken Lauer said, "Oh, you have a different story to tell?"

"Yes, I have a different story to tell," Peterson said.

As Peterson started to speak, Lauer repositioned a microphone from a television news station to point at Peterson and Peterson paused and then said, "I've been advised by counsel not to make any statements."

As soon as the meeting adjourned, Peterson walked out of the building without speaking to anybody.

In May, Peterson reportedly received a letter from Andrew Fleming, the attorney representing a group of part-time village police officers who claimed they were illegally deprived work hours.  The letter was an offer to settle a potential lawsuit before it reached that stage.

Trustees only learned of the letter Monday when Fleming showed up at the village board meeting.

Peterson allegedly made a statement in closed session that night that he wanted to see the lawsuit filed, so he allegedly withheld the letter from the other trustees.

Also stirring the pot for trustees was a letter Peterson reportedly sent out Aug. 8 (PDF) asserting his power as mayor to run the village. He threatened legal action against any trustee, or the board as a whole, if attempts were made to usurp his power.

This evening, the trustees also voted 3-1 on a motion instructing Boylan to send a letter to Peterson barring him from contact with village office staff over concern that Peterson's continued contact with staff will lead to a harassment lawsuit.

The other motion passed Thursday was one instructing Boylan to send a letter to Robert Alexander barring him from village property.

Last night the Town of Pembroke board instructed Boylan, who also represents the town, to send a letter to Alexander barring him from town property.

According to witnesses, at Monday's village meeting, Alexander allegedly threatened to break the neck of a Town of Pembroke board member.

State Police confirm receiving a report of an alleged incident involving Alexander, but decline to disclose any further information pending completion of an investigation.

Two residents spoke at Thursday's village meeting. Charlie Lenhard, who identified himself as a longtime friend of Peterson's, told Peterson it's time for him to resign. Drew Doll said that as a 60-year resident of the village, he's embarrassed by what the village has become. The problems started, he said, long before any of the current trustees were on the board. It's time, he said, to dissolve the village.

July 25, 2013 - 12:03pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

The two members of the Village of Corfu office staff have formally filed letters of complaint with the trustees accusing Mayor Ralph Peterson of creating a hostile work environment.

In her letter, Assistant Clerk/Treasurer Denise Beal said she believes Peterson's treatment of her is meant to demean her as a woman and is therefore a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Both Beal and Clerk/Treasurer Sandra Thomas said they do not want to take further legal action but may be left with no choice if the trustees are unable to stop Peterson's alleged harassment.

The trustees received the letters Monday and voted to forward the complaints to Village Attorney Mark Boylan for his advice on how to handle the complaints.

Beal's letter indicates that it's mostly a feeling she gets from Peterson that he tries to harass and intimidate her because she is female. The one concrete example she gives of different treatment of her and Thomas is that Peterson allegedly demanded Beal and Thomas give him copies of office and file cabinet keys but has not made the same demand of the all-male maintenance staff.

Both Beal and Thomas said things kind of came to a head in the past week with Peterson's alleged insistence that his criticism of the office staff be included in the village newsletter.

"His subjective comments he wrote in the village newsletter are embarrassing," Beal wrote. "I have been employed by the Village of Corfu for over 5 years. Never have I felt so degraded and harassed by a male. I have always taken great pride in my work and have performed my duties with great confidence, the highest levels of professionalism, efficiency and accountability. I have always enjoyed my job, but the hostile work environment that has been created by Mr. Peterson is making it difficult to be at work."

Peterson has not yet responded to a request for comment sent via text message.

Both Thomas and Beal said they believe at least some of the motivation for Peterson's conduct is the fact that they are potential witnesses in the criminal case against Brandi Watts, the former village court clerk accused of stealing more than $10,000 in court funds.

Special Prosecutor Donald O'Geen has warned Peterson and the trustees that there should be no interference with the investigation.

As part of their complaints, Thomas and Beal cite Peterson's alleged attempt to fire them, his request for passwords and keys, his moving a desk and chair for himself into Beal's office, and constant assertions of authority and intimidation when he's in the office.

"I could go into many detailed examples of Ralph Peterson's barrage of threats, innuendos, accusations, falsehoods and harassment," Thomas wrote. "Some are a matter of public record, and many have been made behind closed doors and in emails. He has now made public his contempt and made insinuations of incompetence of the office staff in the Village Newsletter to Village residents. This is unacceptable."

Thomas concludes, "Although Mayor Peterson is smugly confident that he is untouchable and (can) do and say absolutely anything he wants, I am filing this complaint imploring the Board to put a stop to this deplorable situation and prevent any further harassment and retaliation."

July 19, 2013 - 10:53am
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

Corfu Mayor Ralph Peterson is reportedly going to publicly criticize village office staff in his column in a newsletter being sent to village residents today.

Trustee Ken Lauer, who shared a copy of the mayor's column with The Batavian, called Peterson's words unprofessional and said trustees tried to dissuade him from publicly criticizing employees.

In the column, Peteson portrays himself as a reformer who is trying to bring more cordial communication and greater efficiency to village government, but that office staff is refusing to cooperate.

Peterson writes:

Attempts are being made to work with the all of the Village staff. We have been successful with the Maintenance, Court, and Police however we are struggling with the Office Staff. For us to improve we must communicate and understand the authority of the Mayor.

Peterson said he has been consulting with the New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) and that he's been told that as mayor he has a right to access all files and data owned by the village, but his efforts to exercise his lawful authority as mayor is being undermined by staff and trustees.

The lack of understanding of the lawful authority of the Mayor by employees and Trustees has made my first three-month as Mayor interesting. I want to insure the people who are responsible for me becoming the Mayor of Corfu I remain steadfast.

In April, Peterson allegedly fired Sandra Thomas and Denise Beal, but when the women refused to work after a confrontation with Peterson, the village office was left without any staff. The trustees did not support Peterson's actions and Lauer negotiated the return to work of Thomas and Beal.

The column characterizes a village in disarray and not up to "2013 standards." Peterson vows to fix these issues.

My goals as Mayor have not changed I trying change the tone from of communication from confrontational to teamwork. This has truly been a struggle. I realized my comments will not set well with some employees, trustees and residents. However, I must be truthful in my evaluation of the Village business at this time to the residents. I will remain focused on the goals I promised.

June 25, 2013 - 6:47pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

Over the past several years, the Village of Corfu has hired police officers without the Board of Trustees ratifying the new hires.

The apparent oversight came up during a discussion Monday night of Mayor Ralph Peterson hiring two part-time police officers.

Peterson acknowledge that he hired the officers. He said the village department will need more manpower in July because Darien Lake has a packed concert schedule for the month.

Mark Boylan, attorney for the village, said that in the past week it's come to his attention the police officers hired in recent years were hired without being properly ratified by a vote of the trustees.

Those past hires without board approval do not justify new hires by Peterson without board authorization, Boylan said.

Trustees expressed concern that the two new officers were hired without interviews, filling out an application form or passing a background check.

Village resident Greg Lang said he saw the two new officers working on Sunday and Officer Gene Nati said he worked with one of the officers on Sunday.

Before the end of the meeting, the trustees agreed that seven officers had been hired without proper board authorization and passed a resolution authorizing all seven hires.

Peterson is expected to interview the two new officers and ask that the board ratify their employment at a future board meeting.

Trustee Art Ianni expressed frustration that Peterson hired two officers -- an expenditure of $5,000 or $6,000 -- without board discussion.

"Can't we have a little discussion here?" Ianni asked.

Peterson said the new hires were within budget.

Lang accused Peterson of trying ram through the hires and once again being "dictatorial."

"Don't say I've got to stop talking," Lang said. "I'm a taxpayer in this community. One of the highest taxpayers in this community and this is ridiculous. What's going on, Rosie? You keep just going and going and going. What's going to be the next meeting, Rosie? I can't stand it any more, sitting here looking at this. It's absolutely ridiculous."

The meeting started with an update on the joint Pembroke-Corfu sewer project.

Bids have been received from contractors and the cost of Corfu's part of the project will run $750,000 more than budgeted. 

Both Corfu and Pembroke have received Department of Environmental Conservation grants for the project -- for Corfu, grants to help pay for upgrades to the sewer treatment plant and for Pembroke grants to help pay for transmission lines.

The state favors the project moving forward as a joint facility because of the potential economic development in the area, which is why the Genesee County Economic Development Center is putting in more than $800,000 into the project.

Bids for Pembroke's share the project are approximately $750,000 less than budgeted, so if the DEC and Comptroller's Office will approve the transfer, some of Pembroke's grant money will go to Corfu, plus a portion of the money pledged by GCEDC will help offset the higher-than-anticipated bids.

As part of the deal, rate payers in Pembroke's sewer district will pay 3 percent less than the rate originally set. The decrease will mean that both Corfu and Pembroke rate payers will pay $6.24 per thousand gallons of sewage.

The issue of Peterson trying to get former Trustee Al Graham banned from the sewer treatment plant was also discussed.

Peterson said he had an agreement with the owner of Camden Group, Graham's employer and contractor that runs the sewer plant, that Graham be barred from the facility.

Trustees were unanimous in telling Peterson that they thought Graham should be allowed on the property and that his expertise would be necessary during the sewer project.

Peterson said it's always been his position that if Trustee David Bielec, who is the trustee in charge of overseeing the sewer project, wanted Graham involved, than Graham could have access to the sewer property.

Bielec said he did want Graham to participate.

The board also voted 3-0, with Peterson and Trustee Keith Busch abstaining, to authorize Boylan to take legal action to recover more than $10,000 in alleged missing funds from former village justice Robert Alexander.

Peterson tried to question whether it's been proven that the funds are missing. Boylan said the village has a Comptroller's audit showing the funds are missing. He said that by law, Alexander is obligated to pay the village back for the missing funds, regardless of how the funds went missing.

Busch said he abstained because he wasn't a trustee at the time the missing funds issue first surfaced.

Peterson wasn't going to vote at all on the motion -- until goaded by village residents in attendance to say what his vote was.

Top photo: Trustee Ianni with Peterson, while Ianni complains about the lack of discussion for hiring two new police officers.

June 10, 2013 - 11:02pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Ralph Peterson.

Once again, Corfu trustees and Ralph Peterson are at odds over the conduct of the first-term mayor.

This time, residents and trustees raised concerns about Peterson obtaining keys to all of the filing cabinets and demanding an office in the village facility.

In non-binding motions passed 3-0 each, the trustees expressed displeasure with both actions.

When asked by Trustee Ken Lauer if he would surrender keys to the file cabinets, Peterson shook his head no. When the motion was made opposing setting up an office for the mayor -- workers have already started moving filing cabinets -- Peterson shook his head no.

He made no apparent vote on either motion.

Lauer, Keith Busch and Dave Bielec voted yes. Art Ianni was absent.

Since taking office, Peterson has been accused of firing village staff, lying, banning the employee of the sewer contractor from the sewer plant, and demanding employee passwords for computers.

The password incident garnered a warning from Donald O'Geen, a special district attorney handling the investigation into missing court money, for Peterson not to tamper with evidence.

Village officials are concerned that Peterson's acquisition of file cabinet keys and the desire to have an office in the building are further attempts to interfere with the investigation.

Former Village Justice Robert Alexander and his daughter, Brandi Watts, are the possible targets of the investigation following a comptroller's audit that found the court was allegedly missing at least $10,000.

O'Geen has been appointed special district attorney to help avoid any potential conflicts of interest that may exist with the Genesee County District Attorney's Office.

Debbie Graham, a longtime village employee, and wife of former trustee Al Graham (the sewer employee Peterson allegedly tried to have banned), raised the issue of the file cabinet keys during the public comment portion of the meeting.

She questioned why Peterson needed the keys.

"I have the authority to have the keys," he said.

Debbie Graham said that for keeping records properly secured and to avoid any accusations of missing records leveled against Peterson, Peterson shouldn't have a key. Lauer, Busch and Bielec all said they agreed.

"To be honest with you, Rosie, I don't trust you," Debbie Graham said.

"We all have people we don't trust," Peterson said.

Asked about establishing his own office in the building, Peterson said, "I have the authority and I'm going to exercise my authority."

Resident Greg Lang told Peterson that it appears he's trying to establish a dictatorship.

"You're doing whatever you want and nobody has enough guts to stop you," Lang said. "We used to be friends. You were a decent guy before you got that power. It went right to your head."

After the meeting, Al Graham asked a gentleman in the third row of the audience who he was. He identified himself as the attorney for the Village of Oakfield. He said he had been asked by Peterson to come to the meeting by Peterson to observe it.

The attorney is Reid Whiting, a Le Roy resident.

Peterson has previously tried to replace village attorney Mark Boylan. Whiting didn't reveal if he was there as a possible Peterson nominee for attorney or to assist Peterson with his situation in Corfu.

Al Graham asked Whiting what he thought of the meeting, and Whiting said it was "hostile."

Photo: Lauer, left, and Peterson.

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