CLIFTON PARK – A few days after a more than four-hour planning board meeting last month, Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett called a meeting with Rocco Ferraro, then the chair of the Planning Board, to discuss ideas for how to prevent Planning Board meetings from dragging on deep into the night.
Barrett and Ferraro couldn’t seem to get on the same page during the April 15 meeting, which also included Planning Department Director John Scavo. Ferraro said he didn’t understand what Barrett wanted out of the meeting, and Barrett said Ferraro was refusing to listen to ideas. Scavo declined to comment, saying he didn’t want to discuss personnel issues.
“I don’t think [holding long meetings] is a positive situation for the volunteers, the staff, the residents that attend, as well as the applicants,” Barrett said. “It’s something that I had mentioned to [Ferraro] before. We would lose people due to the length of the meetings, and it would seem to me there should be some opportunities to consider shortening the meetings.”
But Ferraro said major decisions, such as the Planning Board’s recent approval for a Chick-fil-A at 304 Clifton Park Center Road, require getting into the nitty gritty of access, environmental concerns, the look of a project, its impact on surrounding neighborhoods and other factors.
“It’s detailed. It’s getting into the weeds, and that’s what we do as Planning Board members,” Ferraro said. “We take into account the issues and concerns that are out there and identify mitigation measures and strategies that are out there to address those concerns that can result in a win-win situation for all the parties involved. So it takes time.”
Barrett and Ferraro both said their meeting became tense. Ferraro said he felt insulted by Barrett, and Barrett said the meeting ended with Ferraro becoming agitated and swearing.
“He slammed his chair against the table and said, ‘you’ll be receiving my resignation,’” Barrett said.
That’s how Ferraro’s time as Clifton Park Planning Board chair, a position he held since 2010, came to an end.
“It was heated, and I take part of the responsibility for that,” said Ferraro, who also spent his career in planning, serving as executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission from 2003 to 2016. “I’m the one that threw out the F-Bomb, and I guess in defense of myself, the insults that were conveyed to me during the meeting and then right at the end of the meeting provoked me to throw out the F-Bomb.”
That’s the backstory for how the vacancy that the Clifton Park Town Board voted to fill this week came to be. At its regular meeting on Monday, the board named Denise Riccardi-Bagramian, a long-time Planning Board member, to the chairperson role through the end of the year.
That vote, necessitated by a tense exchange between two public servants, occurred during the same meeting when Councilmembers Amy Standaert, Lynda Walowit and Amy Flood voted to hire an outside law firm to investigate claims by employees of toxicity inside Town Hall.
Ferraro said, in his mind, his disagreement with Barrett was isolated, and he personally hasn’t witnessed a culture of workplace hostility.
“That’s something I’m unaware of. It was very coincidental, apparently. There was no cause and effect, no relationship,” Ferraro said.
Barrett said disagreements are a regular part of life.
“Hey, people disagree. People resign. This is life. This happens every day in business and organizations,” Barrett said. “Unfortunately, it seems over the last couple of years that disagreements do not get solved very easily anymore. I don’t think that’s anything particular to Clifton Park. I think we see that across the board, and I hear that from my colleagues on a consistent basis.”
Nonetheless, the three council members who supported the hiring of Bond, Schoeneck & King, said they think it’s time to get to the bottom of what may or may not be happening in Town Hall.
“We believe that the hostile work environment claim must not be ignored, and it must be investigated,” Standaert said.
It’s amid all of this that Riccardi-Bagramian, 51, steps into her new leadership role on the Planning Board.
“I have good relationships with everybody,” said Riccardi-Bagramian, who said she has lived in Clifton Park since 2005. “I think it’s just how you deal with people. Everybody coming in has something at stake, whether it’s the applicant who has a piece of land that they want to do something on, or on the other side, making sure the community is heard.”
Riccardi-Bagramian, who grew up in Troy and whose father was a developer, now works in commercial real estate herself. Prior to being named chair, she had been serving her last year of a seven-year term as a Planning Board member.
“I have a full understanding of how buildings are built and how buildings are run – the actual planning and the master planning,” she said.
Even though planning is an involved process, Riccardi-Bagramian said she understands concerns about Planning Board meetings running too long.
“I’m going to have a discussion with the other Planning Board members, the planning director and Phil [Barrett], and we’re going to talk about ideas on how to streamline meetings,” she said. “The process is important, but we also want to be respectful of everyone’s time.”
While Ferraro and Barrett certainly had their disagreements, they don’t disagree about Riccardi-Bagramian filling the role.
“She has been an effective member of the Planning Board,” Ferraro said. “I don’t have an opinion one way or the other.”
Barrett said Riccardi-Bagramian has the right background for the Planning Board post.
“She has been a member of the Planning Board for a number of years. She has the experience, institutional knowledge, and demeanor and professionalism that we would expect from a Planning Board chair.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.