Locked doors

Access to government center limited during controversial meetings

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 2/3/21

 

 

 

MONTICELLO, NY — Outside the Sullivan County’s Government Center, it was cold and windy. Inside, last Thursday’s meetings began. 

And few …

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Locked doors

Access to government center limited during controversial meetings

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — Outside the Sullivan County’s Government Center, it was cold and windy. Inside, last Thursday’s meetings began. 

And few people could get inside. Some waited in line outside the legislative hearing room until they were sent back to their cars.

In the room itself, during the regular meeting of the legislature, commenters and legislators reported on the situation and demanded to know why this was necessary. Lou Setren requested that the meeting be moved to accommodate everyone. Deputy county attorney Tom Cawley said that COVID-19 protocols from the state were being followed.

It sounded like most people didn’t care. They had come out to support legislator Luis Alvarez, who was the focus of a special meeting later in the day; some were there to support the county’s visitors association, whose contract was up for termination. 

“I went downstairs and I got bombarded by people,” said legislator Joe Perello. “People wanted to come up here, and I understand that the building got locked down... the officers downstairs told me the chairman said that nobody’s allowed—”

“For COVID purposes,” said chairman Rob Doherty to boos and chatter.

“So getting back to what the officer told me —”

“If we have any more disruptions, we’ll clear the room,” Doherty said. “Thank you very much.” 

“The sheriff downstairs told me the chairman told them the building is locked down and nobody’s allowed upstairs, and anyone comes down, they can’t come back up,” Perello continued. “I don’t think that’s fair; I think the only one who can shut this building down is Josh, the county manager. And I think that if people are done speaking, they should be able to leave” and let someone else come up. “They shouldn’t be locked out. It’s a public building.”  

Applause. 

“We’re not allowed to have people hang out in the hallways,” Doherty said, citing a naturalization ceremony where the families weren’t allowed to come in. “Because of the COVID restrictions.” 

So stay six feet apart, Perello said. “If someone has a problem with it, they don’t come in... people are upset downstairs.” 

“Rules are rules,” the chairman said. 

COVID-19 restrictions mean that public meetings require social distancing, said county manager Josh Potosek. Department heads can limit how many people come in. 

“This is a meeting held in public; it’s not a public meeting,” Doherty said. 

Other legislators said that they thought people were supposed to be switching out when they finished speaking. 

“So someone needs to call the sheriff’s [deputies] and let them know they’re rotating,” Perello said.

“You’re just not allowed to hang out in the hallway,” Doherty said.

“The deputy sheriff downstairs,” legislative Luis Alvarez reminded everyone, “is just following orders... They told me, by order of the county chairman, the building was in lockdown.”

“That’s incorrect,” Doherty said.

“Well, that’s what they told me,” Alvarez replied.

The meeting went on. Bruce Ferguson, in public comment, said he left the room after the 9 a.m. meeting and was told he had to leave the hallway “on order of the chair.” So they moved to the stairwell, where a deputy told them they had to keep moving “at the order of the chair.” They went to the lobby, where “four sheriff’s deputies told us we had to leave the building on the order of the chair.” If there’s a COVID-19 lockdown in place, he said, you have to end the meetings because “you can’t throw the public out of this building at a public meeting.” Ferguson tried to stay inside. “There’s a wind chill of nine degrees out there and I’m 72 years old... Luis came and he got me back in the building.” 

Just before Ferguson spoke, a notice was sent out that the government center wasn’t locked down. “The main doors have been locked to ensure entry is limited to those who have appointed business with county offices. This is because the ongoing legislature meetings [which are open to the public] have reached capacity, per state COVID-19 social distancing requirements.”

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