In split decision, Clifton Park Town Board hires law firm to investigate claims of toxic environment inside Town Hall

Supervisor of Clifton Park Phil Barrett speaks during a 2021 Saratoga County Board of Supervisors meeting. (Erica Miller/The Daily Gazette)
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Supervisor of Clifton Park Phil Barrett speaks during a 2021 Saratoga County Board of Supervisors meeting. (Erica Miller/The Daily Gazette)

CLIFTON PARK–The three female members of the all-Republican Clifton Park Town Board voted Monday to hire a law firm to investigate what they describe as “a toxic atmosphere” inside Town Hall and alleged employee mistreatment, including a complaint filed with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office that alleges Supervisor Phil Barrett put his hands on an employee.

The Town Board’s split-decision to hire outside counsel drew outrage on Monday from many members of the public, who were concerned about the cost of the legal fees to pay for what many described as a smear campaign against Supervisor Barrett, who has been in office for more than two decades.

Board members Amy Standaert, Lynda Walowit and Amy Flood voted to hire attorney Hilary Moreira, of Bond, Schoeneck & King Attorneys, based in Garden City, New York. Moreira’s current hourly rate is $335, according to a letter Moreira wrote to the Town Board that was included as part of the resolution. The firm’s hourly rate can range from $185 to $495, according to the letter. Barrett and Councilman Anthony Morelli, who said he was not involved with the interviewing of the law firm, voted against the measure.

Barrett, who attended the meeting virtually due to what he described as an abundance of caution with rising COVID-19 cases, characterized the hiring of the law firm as political and an attempt to establish a narrative that Standaert could use to her advantage should she run for supervisor.

“This is all about politics. This resolution is the three board members trying to get ahead of a problem that they created,” Barrett said. “It’s all about politics, and, unfortunately, it has created an environment of mistrust among some employees.”

Standaert said allegations of political motivations are untrue. She said the matter originated with an April 4 memo from Town Attorney Thomas R. McCarthy to the Town Board describing that a town official was abusive and created a toxic work environment. This memo led to a heated April 11 executive session to attempt to resolve the workplace issues, Standaert said. But during that executive session, McCarthy, Standaert and Barrett all raised their voices and pointed fingers, Councilmembers Walowit and Morelli described during Monday night’s meeting.

The complaint that Barrett allegedly put his hands on an employee came in the weeks following this meeting.

“A report was filed referencing some sort of physical altercation. This was following a very serious adverse personnel action that occurred,” Barrett said Monday. “I had taken a very serious adverse personnel action against an employee, and apparently that’s what followed.”

Now the outside law firm has been hired to investigate alleged violations of town policies and other labor and employment matters, according to the resolution.

“We believe that the hostile work environment claim must not be ignored, and it must be investigated,” Standaert said. She said outside counsel is required for impartiality.

“I was advised that we do not go with a local law firm because of the political ramifications that could occur,” she said. “I don’t want politics to come into play here.”

Anna Marie Connolly, an administrator of the Clifton Park Neighbors Facebook page, said she’s been hearing directly from town employees who question the allegations about the toxic workplace inside Town Hall. She said employees tell her they are being asked to provide testimony against Barrett.

“I said to the employees who contacted me to put a video recorder in your pocket–you don’t have to be threatened,” she said. “It’s a shame what has happened to the Clifton Park Town Board. Is there such a fight for control and power?”

But Councilwoman Walowit said she has been hearing from town employees who claim the environment inside Town Hall has degraded over the past several years.

“I think some of you don’t believe what we’re hearing and what we’ve heard over the last few years, actually,” Walowit said. “My main objective is to resolve the toxic issues within Town Hall. My main effort is to protect the staff, to put them in a situation where they can talk without fear of retaliation.”

Barrett said workplace grievances involve a tiny fraction of the town’s workforce.

“Other than the very small number of employees that this whole issue involves, everybody else just wants to do what they’ve always done: Come to work, do their job, do it well, and go home,” Barrett said.

Barrett said this controversy is just the latest in an attempt to give him a bad name. In January, a photo of Barrett circulated depicting him with his mask down in a parking lot.

“A picture was taken of me next to my car with a mask on my chin,” Barrett said. “It was then used to say that I was walking up to town employees and residents without a mask on.”

He said leveling claims against opponents is often an unfortunate part of politics.

“It’s underhanded, it’s dirty, it’s–in my mind–a horrible way to do business,” Barrett said. “But it is reality in Clifton Park at this point, which is sad.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Clifton Park and Halfmoon, News, Saratoga County

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