JOHNSTOWN — The Fulton County Board of Supervisors on Monday got an earful from military veterans upset over the board’s decision not to reappoint Dan Engel as the director of the county’s Veterans Service Agency.
Stephen “Mike” Ferjanek, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. and a resident of the Town of Ephratah spoke first during the board’s public comment period. He asked for anyone in the room who had served in the U.S. military to raise their hands.
“I don’t see any hands raisin’,” Ferjanek said. “So, that tells me that you don’t understand the [U.S. Veterans Administration] system, or being in the military. I was in the military for 20 years, six months, 22 days, to the day. I am a very hard-charging United States Marine, but as veterans of any branch (of the military) we’re all equal, we work together.”
The board voted 14-3 against reappointing Engel to the $53,447 annual salary full-time director job during the board’s Jan. 3 organizational meeting. It was a rare party-line vote with only the board’s three Democrats, Gloversville’s 1st Ward Supervisor Marie Born, 2nd Ward Supervisor Frank Lauria and 5th Ward Supervisor Greg Young, voting in favor of retaining Engel. All of the Republican supervisors in attendance voted against him.
Mario Cristaldi, the commander of American Legion Post 337 in Broadalbin, blasted the board for not supporting Engel. He said he believes the board’s vote not to support Engel was “political” and “personal.”
“You have no idea what you’ve created, none of you do,” Cristaldi said. “You’ve created a mess. We have veterans out there that are going to need help, and there is no plan in place. What are you going to do now? Push the work onto other people who are going to be even more overburdened? Leaving things in even more turmoil for our veterans.”
Cristaldi said he is ashamed of the board’s actions, and he believes there will be a political price for them to pay for leaving veterans with ongoing benefit claims started under Engel in the lurch.
“We as veterans, we are not going to forget this,” he said. “This is something we are not going to forget, because, as veterans, this is something we take personal, and there’s almost 4,000 veterans (in Fulton County), and we’re going to remember you when the next elections come up.”
No official reason has been given by supervisors for why Engel was not reappointed. Some supervisors have offered the criticism that they believe Engel did not always spend an equal amount of time assisting every veteran’s claim for benefits.
Ferjanek said Engel was of great help to Fulton County’s 3,711 veterans and Hamilton County’s 506 veterans, but now the burden of assisting local veteran’s benefit claims has been shifted to Montgomery County, which has its own 4,217 veterans to take care of. He told the board they made a mistake in not reappointing Engel because he had great insight into how to navigate the VA benefit system to help veterans with their benefit claims, which in turn helped bring in at least several million dollars in additional federal VA spending to Fulton County from 2019-21.
“I’d like to know why he was relieved of his duties for ‘that incident’,” Ferjanek said. “I know I may not get the answer here today … I don’t know if we can reinstate him, or if you’re even thinking about it, but I have my obligation to speak up for what I believe as a United States Marine, and I stand tall when I speak like that.”
“Thank you for your service,” Fulton County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Greg Fagan said.
“You’re welcome,” Ferjanek replied.
The “incident” Ferjanek referred to was when Engel left his cell phone in the Board of Supervisors chambers during a closed-door executive session of the board in June. Engel has said the incident led to increased friction between himself and Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead.
Engel has said he left the phone in the meeting chamber accidently and that it was subsequently proven that he was not attempting to record the supervisors.
After the board meeting, Fagan said he can’t talk about why he and the majority of the board did not vote to reappoint Engel because the matter is “complicated …. and a lot of it is personnel type stuff that I am not at liberty to talk about,” but he did address the cell phone controversy. Fagan said Engel’s cell phone was never confiscated by the county.
“[The phone] was not confiscated. It was left in this office, in the chambers, during an executive session,” Fagan said. “It went off [from being called). We took it in the office. He called Johnstown Police.”
Engel has also argued that one of the reasons he was not reappointed was that he was advocating for the Veterans Service Agency to be moved out of the basement of the county’s 223 W. Main St. building. Engel argued that the current location of the agency is a cramped office space that lacks the room to be compliant with the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act when veterans need to speak freely about their health problems. He also questioned the handicap accessibility of the office and said it should be moved to the Route 29 Fulton County Services Complex, into the office space being vacated by the Fulton County Emergency Management office, which is moving into the former Johnstown Area Volunteer Ambulance Corps. building on North Perry Street in Johnstown.
Fagan said the issue of whether or not the Veterans Service Agency will be moved to the Route 29 Fulton County Services Complex is still ongoing.
“There is a space, but I don’t think it’s empty yet — I don’t know that Emergency Management has totally moved out yet,” Fagan said. “We’re looking at that, but there’s also some other space over there at the complex that would work. We would like, hopefully, to get a place where, if the staff in (the Veterans Service Agency) isn’t in, there’s at least another desk with a secretary [located nearby] so (veterans seeking assistance) could stop and leave a message.”
Fagan said he believes it is the inclination of the board to try to keep the county’s director of the Veterans Service Agency a full-time position, which it became in 2019 at Engel’s urging.
“But that may change, depending on the individuals who come in,” Fagan said.
Fagan said he’d like to get the position filled as soon as possible, but there aren’t many people who are qualified to do it.
“We will advertise the position, but the criteria are quite narrow. You have to be a [veteran] who served during a ‘declared conflict’, which really eliminates a lot of the potential (candidates) we get,” he said. “Once applications are in we will begin interviews.”
Fagan said he would like to get a new director for the Veterans Service Agency who is an accredited Veterans Service Officer, a certification Engel obtained during his tenure.
“We’re also looking into what it would take to get someone else in that office accredited to be a VSO,” he said. “(VSOs) are the ones who actually do the filing and represent the vets with the VA, and Engel had that. We’ve found a few, just since last week, because we’ve reached out to other counties to make sure the veterans are being taken care of, and we’ve looked into what it takes to be accredited as a VSO. But you can be the Veterans (Service Agency director) and not necessarily be a VSO. We’d like to have both, if we can find someone who has both, that would be great, but I don’t think we’re going to find that right away.”
After not being reappointed, Engel last week indicated he would likely still assist some of the veterans benefit claims that were ongoing at the time the board chose not to reappoint him.
Fagan on Monday said Fulton County is helping to refer veterans with ongoing benefit claims to get assistance from Montgomery County and New York state. He said it may be true that Engel will continue to help some of the veterans who were furthest along in the claim process, and “if he does, more power to him,” but Fulton County will likely not be paying any compensation for him to do so.