WEIGHING IN – There’s been something of a coup attempt.
In Clifton Park.
The scandal originated in February of last year when the Town Board appointed Council Member Amy Flood to fill a vacant seat. That’s when Council Member Amy Standaert, who has been on the board since 2013, sensed an opportunity. She approached Flood and Council Member Lynda Walowit, who has been on the board since 1995, about forming a coalition. Together, the three women would hold the 3-2 majority on the all-Republican board.
Walowit says she initially viewed the alliance as a chance to do right by the town. It was a chance to provide staff with necessary funding and equipment, and to generally improve the culture inside Town Hall. If that meant having a strained relationship with Supervisor Phil Barrett and applying pressure to Clifton Park’s leader of more than two decades, Walowit was OK with that.
“It started out innocently enough trying to do things to help the staff,” Walowit said.
“It started getting political and ugly,” Walowit said.
Little did Walowit know just how political things would get. That’s because while Standaert was recruiting allies on the council, which is pretty much standard ops, she also enlisted the help of at least one employee at Town Hall.
For her part, Standaert maintains that what I’m about to outline is part of a longstanding pattern in which Barrett regularly tries to silence critics.
“Everyone is bamboozled by this man. Everyone thinks that he is fantastic, and they trust him because he has been around for so long. The man is evil,” Standaert said. “Phil Barrett is afraid of me. He is delusional, he is paranoid, and he thinks that I want to run against him in a primary. He knows that if anyone could beat him in an election, it would be me.”
Standaert continued: “His only tool that he can use to stay in office is to marginalize me, discredit me, defame me, and create the cockamamie [expletive] stories about me. That’s it. That’s it. This is what he’s always done.”
Did I mention things had gotten ugly?
But the sordid details in this column, which is based on interviews with town officials and reviews of town documents, point to just how toxic politics have become at all levels of government.
What we now know is that in Information Specialist Matt Andrus, a town employee in the supervisor’s department, Standaert apparently found a willing and able partner with whom she worked in an attempt to bring down Barrett.
Andrus, who became the information specialist in 2017, did not return multiple phone and email messages left for him Friday. He’s been on paid administrative leave as of Oct. 17.
It’s unclear what exactly – if anything – was promised to Andrus to recruit his efforts, but Walowit said Standaert’s ambitions are now clear.
“If she could force Phil [Barrett] to resign, or not to run again, it would be to her advantage,” Walowit said.
Emboldened by a solid 3-2 voting majority on the council, Standaert and Andrus worked behind the scenes to fuel controversies that could take down the supervisor.
This effort ramped up on Jan. 3, 2022, when Barrett announced he tested positive for COVID-19. In his telling, he showed up early in the morning that Monday after testing positive to transfer a set of keys to a member of his staff. He says he left the keys on the hood of his car and never went inside the building. Three days later, Barrett appeared at a public event, where COVID-19 test kits were being distributed in the parking lot of the town’s senior center.
Yes, Barrett stayed at least 30 feet from everyone, and he maintains the event was five days after he displayed any mild symptoms and therefore fell outside of the quarantine window. Still, it wasn’t a great look. And Standaert pounced.
The councilwoman began crafting a condemnation that she planned to read at the Jan. 10 Town Board meeting. She solicited Andrus’ help.
On Jan. 7, Standaert and Andrus talked for more than 80 minutes over the course of nine phone calls conducted during working hours. In addition, Andrus and Standaert also exchanged emails developing a draft of the statement Standaert would read at the Jan. 10 meeting. Town records show Standaert sent a six-paragraph draft of the statement to Andrus at 10:24 a.m. on Jan. 10. It included the message “please proof read.”
Andrus returned an updated 13-paragraph version of the statement an hour later. The longer, more incendiary version, became the version Standaert ultimately issued into the public record at the meeting. It included claims that Barrett appeared inside Town Hall on the day he announced his positive COVID test, a claim he denies.
This email exchange followed a similar exchange that occurred Jan. 7, during which Andrus copied media contacts onto an email detailing the sentiments of the comments Standaert planned to bring up publicly in regard to Barrett’s alleged flouting of COVID-19 protocols.
By and large, the COVID-19 controversy didn’t play well for Barrett. Several local media outlets, including The Daily Gazette, covered the story, and Barrett was placed on the defensive.
But, publicly, things quieted down in the ensuing months. Privately, town employees started coming forward with stories about Andrus’ delinquency. They reported stories such as multiple attempts to pop into Andrus’ office for a quick question only to find him with his feet up on the desk while on the phone, said Clifton Park Town Attorney Tom McCarthy. They’d come back half an hour later and see he was still on the phone, McCarthy said.
On April 27, McCarthy issued Andrus a Notice of Discipline spelling out Andrus’ “pattern of neglect, non-responsiveness, incompetence and insubordination.” The notice includes details about Andrus’ delay in implementing a phone system, failure to renew cloud storage backup and consistent tardiness. The notice of discipline notes an “increasing tendency to ignore emails, requests for action and direction from [the town attorney’s] office.”
Andrus was placed on a two-day suspension without pay from April 28-29.
The same day Andrus was notified of his suspension, he filed a complaint with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office alleging Barrett pushed him. Nothing has come of the complaint, and Andrus never pressed charges.
In response to what Barrett described as a false claim against him, Barrett issued Andrus a second suspension, from May 4 to May 6.
On May 16, with supportive votes from Standaert, Walowit and Flood, the board hired at an hourly rate of up to $335 attorney Hilary Moreira, of Bond, Schoeneck & King Attorneys, to investigate the workplace culture inside Town Hall. So far, nothing has come of this firm’s investigation. To date, nearly six months later, the firm has billed the town $2,713.
Standaert says the hammer will soon drop from the firm’s report.
“It’s wrapping up, and a report should be coming relatively soon. When? I don’t know. But it’s wrapping up,” Standaert said. “I have no idea what it’s going to show. But what I hope it’s going to show is that we have dysfunction in Town Hall.”
Standaert also contends that town employees are poorly treated.
“The place is a mess. There are still employees that cannot walk into the building without crying first,” she said. “This has been going on for years. The people in that building are being tortured, and they want out.”
Standaert has been making these sorts of claims at least since April. Conflating news of the complaint Andrus filed with the sheriff’s office with a separate memo about a then-unidentified town employee who allegedly created a toxic work environment, there was just enough to advance a narrative that Barrett was to blame for the alleged toxicity at Town Hall.
Stanndaert denies she was ever trying to point the finger specifically at Barrett. No doubt, though, the public perception back then was that Barrett was to blame. However, in late June, I received the April 4 memo through a FOIL request, and I reported in The Daily Gazette that the highway superintendent was actually the official in question in the April 4 memo. (The toxicity outlined in the memo stemmed from a dispute between Highway Superintendent Dahn Bull and Attorney McCarthy.)
The memo seemed to confirm that the only on-the-record allegation against Barrett was the claim filed by Andrus with the sheriff’s office on April 27.
Barrett thought it cleared his name.
But Standaert doubled down, telling me in June: “There are other matters that need to be looked into. I will leave it at that. I won’t get into specifics.”
Turns out, one thing that truly needed to be looked into was Standaert’s collaboration with Andrus.
Their partnership was revealed publicly during an Aug. 15 Town Board meeting, when Standaert brought up an April 4 voicemail that Andrus had forwarded to her. (Andrus has denied a role in forwarding the message.) The voicemail had sought campaign contributions for Barrett, and Standaert seemed to think she had a juicy scandal involving the supervisor soliciting campaign money at work. It backfired. All the voicemail did was reveal that she and Andrus had been working together to smear the supervisor.
This was when Walowit began to question her alliance with Standaert.
“I started getting suspicious when it started getting ridiculous and realized that it was also politically motivated,” Walowit said. “Then I kind of backed out and started investigating on my own and, unfortunately, felt remorse that I took part in some of these things. The whole episode with Supervisor Barrett coming into Town Hall with COVID? I was able to check that out and found things that were completely untrue, and those were things that came from Councilwoman Standaert.”
Meanwhile, with Walowit’s vote, the Town Board approved bringing in a hearing officer to conduct a formal investigation into what was going on between Standaert and Andrus.
During a formal interview on Sept. 30, Andrus admitted that while on company time he helped Standaert craft the January statement about Barrett’s COVID-19 behavior.
“That was the death knell of his employment, because you can’t subvert your own boss,” McCarthy said.
Andrus signed a termination agreement with the Town of Clifton Park on Oct. 17 and submitted an irrevocable resignation effective Jan. 10, 2023.
At this time, Standaert is not accused of any legal wrongdoing, but McCarthy said the town is looking into the matter, which McCarthy describes as “clear misconduct and abuse of office by the councilmember.”
Barrett said it’s obvious what’s been attempted.
“It’s unconscionable to think of the collusion and clandestine operation that was going on to create problems at Town Hall,” Barrett said. “Get the supervisor out, manufacture negative things about me and anyone that they deemed might be loyal to me, and then when I’m gone then they take over positions and make more money – that’s what this is all about.”
Maybe. But what’s this all about to you and me? Admittedly, some of this is pure palace intrigue. Yes, Andrus admitted to engaging in nefarious political dealings on company time – which amounts to stealing from taxpayers. But his salary is roughly $61,000. Spread that across approximately 38,000 residents, and each resident isn’t even paying him $2 a year.
It doesn’t necessarily surprise me, but I keep coming back to just how ugly all of this has gotten. We’re talking about Clifton Park, New York, a quiet suburban town made up of subdivisions and developments with names like Country Knolls. The town government is responsible for mowing the grass, making sure the roads are drivable. It is alarming that politicians at this level would stoop so low. Sadly, it seems to prove that power can be corrupting, even if that power is more on the scale of a generator than an electrical grid.
I do see hope here, though. And I see it in Walowit. In no way do I want to hold her up as some kind of hero, but I am comforted somewhat by her level of remorse. She’s shown humility and a willingness to evolve her thinking as new facts emerged.
“I was very disappointed in myself that I believed those things,” she said. “I was shaken by finding out that Mr. Andrus and Ms. Standaert collaborated to completely manufacture these things.”
Too often, we see politicians refuse to change. From 1 Town Hall Plaza in Clifton Park on up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we see leaders dig into stances in a way that divides us. We need to believe leaders can change and that they are willing to hold fellow leaders accountable, to call foul even if it hurts their chances at winning. If we don’t, even more Americans will become convinced the game is rigged.
In Clifton Park, that game has already turned ugly. Now, it’s time to turn it around.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.