Schoharie County

Richmondville family complains about assessor’s use of Facebook

The town of Richmondville is reviewing some of its policies after a resident complained that the tow

The town of Richmondville is reviewing some of its policies after a resident complained that the town assessor inappropriately used Facebook, including photos of young children, in an assessment hearing.

Residents Robert and Renee Nied, in formal complaints and at Town Board meetings, said the assessor, Deborah Ker, attempted to use personal photos from Facebook as evidence when the Nieds were appealing an increase in their assessment last fall.

At a Town Board meeting in January, Robert Nied called Ker “a rogue employee” and her actions in mining Facebook “inappropriate and unethical.”

“I’m asking you to step up and address this issue,” he said to the board. “I want this to stop, not only for me, but anyone else she’s doing this to.”

Ker declined to comment on Nied’s complaint, but Town Supervisor Richard Lape and Town Attorney Marvin Parshall Jr. said the town has addressed several requests made by the Nieds and is still working on one more: reviewing town policy and possibly establishing new procedures regarding the assessor’s use of sites like Facebook.

“The town received some concerns and some requests from Mr. Nied and the town has been working on those,” Parshall said. “And we had some conversations with Mr. Nied and he seemed satisfied that the town was doing what he had requested.”

Per Nied’s request, the photos in question were removed from their assessment record and destroyed, and the family received a letter of apology from Ker.

Many of the photos, culled from about 700 on his page and his son’s page, featured his children and his children’s friends. Ker was not connected to any of the Nieds as friends on Facebook and downloaded the photos using a private account that did not identify her as the town assessor, according to Nied’s ethics complaint.

Ker first introduced them during a state Small Claims Assessment Review, presumably as evidence of improvements to the Nieds’ home in support of a higher assessment, though Ker would not comment on her motive and Nied could only speculate.

Most of the photos, he said, showed little of the home or anything that would generally be admissible in an assessment review. One of them was of another house entirely.

“It’s important to realize that the assessor did not ask for permission to download these photographs,” he said. “Everybody has this position that if you post it on Facebook it’s public property. Well in reality it isn’t. There are some intellectual property rights that still persist.”

The hearing officer declined to look at the photos or consider them in the hearing. The Nieds’ assessment was reduced in October by $6,000.

Nied claims that Ker’s actions violated not only town and county policy but the New York State Assessors’ Association Constitution, Facebook’s user agreement and possibly federal copyright law.

The Nieds have since blocked Ker on Facebook.

Robert Nied, formerly the director of the Center for Sustainable Rural Communities, said he has been generally satisfied with town officials’ response, but is keeping on eye on their progress in addressing the issue with written policies.

If those policies aren’t developed, he said, “Then we’re going to explore our options for kind of forcing that issue a bit, because we think it’s important. We think that people shouldn’t be subject to this kind of behavior.”

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