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Massena residents accuse mayor of stifling dissent at board meetings

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MASSENA - Massena’s mayor has come under fire for allegedly stifling dissenting views at the village’s Board of Trustees meeting.

Mayor James F. Hidy and village resident R. Shawn Gray, who retired from his post as foreman of the village’s career firefighters this past summer, have had testy exchanges at several recent board meetings.

When the mayor shut down Mr. Gray at last week’s meeting, former Village Trustee Joseph A. Macaulay came to the retired village employee’s defense.

“I’ve been to several meetings the last month and a half, and at several of those meetings, I think (Mr. Hidy) made very inappropriate comments to a taxpayer in Massena - namely Shawn Gray. I think you should be ashamed of yourself for your treatment of a taxpayer,” he said.

Mr. Macaulay and Mr. Hidy were political rivals in the mayor’s race two years ago. The former village trustee, who has also been an active volunteer firefighters, had also called for the elimination of Mr. Gray’s foreman post at the fire station two years ago.

Mr. Gray, a former county legislator, also chastised the mayor for his actions. “It is unfair to try and stifle dissenting voices in this room. It’s government at its worst,” he suggested.

At board of trustees meetings, Mr. Hidy enforces a rule that limits an individual to five minutes to voice his or her opinion during the public comment period.

However, at last Tuesday’s board meeting, Mr. Hidy limited recently retired career firefighter foreman R. Shawn Gray’s public comment after a little more than three minutes.

Before the public comment period, Mr. Hidy told residents in attendance he would limit each individual to one question, one turn to comment and three minutes to speak his or her piece. Mr. Hidy also said he wanted “no debate” during the public comment period.

Mr. Gray was making an argument against a vote to support a possible effort to help give St. Lawrence County the authority to make a decision on whether to increase its share of the sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, before he was cut off. Mr. Hidy advocated and voted for the effort.

Mr. Gray believes Mr. Hidy uses the time-limit rule to stifle opinions he find unfavorable.

“I think it’s disingenuous to apply the (time-limit) rule only to people who disagree with you,” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Hidy responded that the time-limit minute rule is necessary to keep board meeting running in an efficient and timely manner.

“The public comment period is for comment. It’s not for debate,” Mr. Hidy said. “A lot of times the issues being discussed can become redundant. We can’t be there all night.”

Mr. Hidy also said that a time-limit rule of about five minutes on an individual’s public comment is standard procedure at many local government board meetings.

To the accusations that he was trying to “hamstring” residents who disagreed with his positions, Mr. Hidy said “that’s not true at all.”

Mr. Gray believes the problem he sees in Mr. Hidy’s conduct goes beyond the five-minute rule. He accused Mr. Hidy of talking down to people he disagrees with at village board meetings, making civic engagement uncomfortable for some village residents. “I think it deters people from coming to a board meeting to address their concerns,” Mr. Gray said. “I have pretty thick skin, but I’m afraid other people would be deterred from speaking at board of trustees meetings.”

Mr. Hidy suggested their grievances against the way he conducts business at the meetings is an attempt to control the board’s actions beyond the appropriate leverage of public comment.

“This board is not going to be bullied or be an open board to someone else’s vendetta,” he said. “Our board is going to conduct business in an upmost professional and efficient manner.”

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