Milt was dead.
In the bright grey mid-morning
I was bent over my snow shovel pushing heavy wet white
down along the boardwalk in front of our gallery/studio when the local historian
tramped by going the other direction.
The professor who oddly was absent minded only when expedient
asked, "Did you hear about Milt?"
I winced, "Yes, now what are we going to do?"
By the time I finished shoveling I had thought thru all the options and realized there
really were none.
Nobody in Sugar Loaf was going to step up to take Milt's place, and I was finally going to have to do something myself.
It was my turn.
I could not have known how that one fidgety little question was going to pursue me
through an eight year trek sloshed knee-deep in political intrigue and nonsense
until a final
autumn afternoon found me sitting on my backyard patio with an FBI agent, asking
him the very
"Now what are we going to do?"
Milt was a member of the local Town Planning Board, and a few days earlier he
had lain down with his usual evening paper and passed away without a sound.
I knew my shock and surprise at Milt's passing must be nothing compared to
his wife Sylvia's astonishment at having found him resting in his bed
reluctant to arise that he would not—and never would again.
I also knew (after hours of agonizing review) that there was absolutely not one
single soul around me who would even consider taking on the tasks that Milt had been
routinely handling as a community organizer and leader, especially when it came to his
work on the Planning Board.
I went inside, stamped the snow off, and told my wife, "I guess I'm going to
have to see about being on the Planning Board."
She shivered and agreed.
I showed up for the interview and was shocked to find there were eight of us
total who had decided it was time to do something.
Unfortunately none of the others were from our little hamlet Sugar Loaf.
Even so if I had known there was any interest at all in being a Planning Board
Member, I wouldn't have bothered.
But I had started this thing, so I had to see it through.
At one point during the application process somebody mentioned, "Well, Bob, it's
down to you and one other. The general feeling is that we are going to give it
to him, but we'll put you high on the list for the next time. Everybody is quite
I stated flatly, "Not possible. I get Milt's seat or nothing. That seat has
integrity and excellence stuck to it. It has special significance. If I don't
get Milt's seat, I'm not interested in anything else later. It's now or never."
Milt himself had moved into the seat after his predecessor (held in the same high regard)
had retired to somewhere in Maine, or Vermont,
or some such place much less crowded.
The name of
Milt's predecessor is too ancient a history for even me to remember, but
I am sure this scenario is played out in all towns, in all places, and all the time,
so it is really just a matter of the thought that counts.
In any case Milt's seat became mine, and I went out of my way to thank the other
applicant–whom I figured had allowed it to happen.
Then began the endless string of rigorous meetings, classes in land-use
development, sessions of my own study of local zoning laws along with the
development of zoning
laws in New York State which of course meant the beginnings of the
concept of zoning
in the United States as a whole.
More or less the idea of zoning began in NYC in 1915 and was finalized by 1925.
It was a response to the horrid conditions that coal burning in industrial areas had
caused for people trying to live there.
The idea was to move residences away from the pollution.
Police powers were
used to allow it.
Zoning is all about health, safety, and welfare.
This is all off the top of my head, so you may find a record showing something
a little different.
As an aside if you take a look at this stuff make sure to note how odd it is that
today there is a big push toward clean coal.
I guess you need to have come from hardy coal mining stock to understand the
futility and false logic in the idea of clean coal, but that's a whole 'nother story.
Suffice it to say governments and vested interests always do what they can to manipulate
public perception, and sometimes they do a pretty good job of it.
Sadly they often do their best job in cases where they themselves have not the slightest idea
what it is about the truth they are
For example take the recent happenings in the Town of Chester. [circa
year veteran Planning Board Chairman, Ray Johanson (the guy whom Milt, and Milt's predecessor,
and I all worked under) has been dismissed, supposedly because he did not
sufficiently update and computerize his
process to suit all the bright new town officials.
Of course the truth of the matter is far different, and it is unlikely the
bright new town officials have a clue about how they were
manipulated into their decision.
When I became a Planning Board Member, one big shock was how
pitifully lacking the Town government was with regard to
computerized storage and retrieval of the information that it was charged with
Like most people I assumed government records were
computerized and connected.
I mean if you went into the Town Hall you could see computers on desks.
As it turned out a computer sitting in one room
had absolutely no communication with computers sitting in any
other room nor even with a computer sitting on another desk in the same room.
Even a simple file from one computer could not be
copied over for use on another due to software incompatibilities.
Furthermore any digital records that did exist had
no direct interaction with County, State, or
Federal systems which were themselves rather sparse at the time.
So one can see how the idea might have arisen that
the Planning Board Chairman's process was a little behind the times, but
that is beside the point.
Prior to 1993 my predecessor Milt Margolis had put together
digital index of projects before the Planning Board, and
his wife Sylvia gave me a copy so I could continue adding to it.
Of course software and computers were advancing
quickly, so eventually I could bring a laptop to meetings for taking notes in real-time while
enduring constant ridicule for being such a dweeb.
After a few laptop and software upgrades,
my own computer became stable enough that I
could actually work on developing the tracking software itself
during downtimes in the meetings.
Additionally at one point I was put in charge of
assembling a database of Town resources, but I was continually
frustrated by the entire Town's antiquated record keeping system along with the entrenched
resistance to change.
During one Planning Board meeting the lack of coordination of local records
against a broader overview of the situation beyond Town borders
prompted me into a screaming match with the Town Engineer.
We were being presented figures about how sewage
effluent from a large housing development might effect a
It did not make sense that there could be absolutely
no impact... none at all.
So I asked, "But these figures, do they take into
account other developments further up stream, and how far up the
stream is considered?"
The answer was a strong, "We only consider the numbers that
are given to us right here."
At which point I lurched closer toward the Town Engineer (who
was substituting for the Planning Board's own engineer) and screamed,
"So just what would be the criteria for deciding a negative impact?
When people can walk across that stream on the dead fish and not get
their feet wet!?"
I was sort of ashamed of losing it at the time but
eventually understood it was probably something that needed to be
Relative to this sort of nonsense I later found out
the FBI also did not have such clever record keeping as one
might think, but
that is jumping the gun a little, so let's take a step back.
I was sensitized to lack of
data after having
gone over to the Warwick school system (long before I was a Planning
Board Member) while researching a large residential development project.
I was looking
for records about how many kids from Chester attended Warwick
Some Chester students go to school
in Chester but some go to Warwick.
When I dropped by Warwick school and asked for the
numbers, I at first thought I was being given the run
around, because they were less than forthcoming.
The office workers sure did look concerned as
they scurried around while I sat waiting and answered questions
from them such as, "What organization is this for again? Who do you represent?"
"Nobody. I'm just here on my own."
Impatient with the inexplicable delay I asked, "How are these requests usually
"Nobody has ever asked before!"
During that same project I looked up some other
figures at the County Government Center only to realize that all the statistics developers were presenting
with much fanfare in
public meetings were nothing more than half-baked restatements of the
partial information freely available at the Government Center.
The developers were adept at making it look as if they
were doing robust original research, but in fact they were doing the
smallest amount of work possible.
In any case, as for the school figures, I ended up
putting together the only existing Map showing the number of kids from Chester who were being bussed over to Warwick
and where in Chester they were coming from.
All the while I dreamed of the day this information
would be free for the finding online with easy to read map images.
Except that was when e-mail was still sent line by line—if you were lucky enough to have a dial-up
Certainly there was no such thing as sending an
entire document over high speed Internet, or a World Wide Web with
images and clickable links.
But the future seemed obvious and almost upon us, so I was
glad to help move things
forward by putting together a database of projects coming before the local
Planning Board thus extending Milt's earlier work given
in spreadsheet form.
Regrettably even people
who claimed to care did not have a true understanding of the possible benefit
of freely accessible digital records, and that posed a frustration
which became rather severe.
Therefore one might assume my recently being told there is
finally a move to put Town records online would cause
me great happiness and a feeling of vindication well
steeped in the intervening ten plus years.
Instead let me tell you more about Ray Johanson, the
year veteran of the Planning Board who just got tossed, and the superb process he
For eight years I worked like a dog trying to keep
up with the man, notwithstanding my own massive investment in
computers—at least four laptops shown on magazine covers as the best
ever and costing over $4000 each.
Plus I was always on call for any site visit,
attended any and all extra meetings, all extra classes,
did anything I could to get better at keeping track of what was going
on around me, and still I did not command half the material as
well as Ray did the full gamut.
His paper trail process was pretty close to being his life.
Ray and his assistant Donna (Board Recording
Secretary) worked together to prepare the meeting
minutes thru careful review of audio tapes and their own
notes hand written during those meetings.
It was a significant effort, but once done their
resulting minutes were a precious resource.
The true essence of every Board Action was always fully represented with all supporting ancillary material shown.
distracting chitchat had been left on the tapes.
I type fast (really fast), so I took very
thorough real-time notes using my designed to purpose Access Database.
I constantly fine tuned and tweaked the database for faster input.
When I received finished minutes from each meeting I would
have my wife read them aloud while I compared them to my notes checking for lapses or errors.
Early on I believed my proofing checks were done to make sure
Ray and Donna
had it right, but later I realized I was only checking to confirm my
own notes held everything.
Not once in eight years did I ever find a single
problem in their minutes.
Not once in eight years did I catch a
whiff of anything remotely unethical in their treatment of projects before the Board.
Not once in eight years did I feel a hint of
bad action on the part of Ray.
He was dedicated to his job and to the sanctity of the
Beyond that whenever I attended suggested classes (such
as the Orange County
Community College land-use series) I was always left aghast by the rudimentary
questions of working officials from other municipalities when it
came to basic procedures.
I came to
realize it was only because they were not being schooled by such an
able planning professional as veteran Board Member and Chairman Ray
He had established a textbook example of best
practices for planning process.
My thoughts in class were, "Of course, that is
exactly the way
it is done."
Other people in the class would say, "Well,
that is not the way we do it."
I also noticed a disparity between the belief of the
general public (outside the Planning Board) versus what I was
That difference is best summarized by a conversation
among four Board Members in the car coming back from a site
visit one dreary cold rain soaked day.
There had been an article in a local newspaper about
some official taking a bribe, and the conversation turned to, "Have
you ever been approached?"
All the older guys in the car were in accordance,
"Nobody has ever come close to offering something inappropriate."
I'm betting that would come as a great surprise to most
These were not people who would have shied away
from mentioning questionable behavior if they had ever been a part of it.
They had no compunction when it came to crowing
over their remembered cockfights (this is not an allegory, this is
about actual chickens fighting for their lives) long before in somebody's barn someplace or
another, witnessed or heard about.
Cockfighting was a recurring
If something interesting like an offer of money or
illicit benefit had ever occurred, somebody's feathers in that car
would have fluffed, and they would have been more than happy to
revel in the intrigue.
I give full credit to Ray for making it
impossible for developers to even consider they might receive benefit from
schmoozing up a Board Member.
Ray's process was unassailable.
Except where the Town Engineer and Town Attorney
The Town Engineer and Town Attorney
along with the Town Board (all separate from the Planning Board) posed another story
Here is part of that story.
The Town Board legislates while the Planning Board
The Town Board and Planning Board each have
their own Engineers and Attorneys as part of the separation of
Sometimes the Town Engineer would fill in for the
Planning Board Engineer.
However when that happened the tone of the meeting was always significantly different.
The Planning Board Engineer always presented findings in a
cool matter of fact manner; but when the Town Board Engineer filled
in, he was barely
distinguishable from an advocate for the applicant.
Remember the dead fish
Additionally for many years the Attorney for the Town routinely presented his
own significant development projects to the Planning Board till public pressure regarding the conflict of interest finally
grew strong enough (or his activities became obvious enough) that he had to
Didn't matter much to him, because by then he
fully frustrated by a Planning Board that was never going to
give him an inch without expecting his work to come up to the standard required
of everyone else.
I have to say the information he presented as adequate,
then complained when he was sent back to square one in
order to bring in actual information, would make you spit.
Nobody but he ever submitted such lackluster
Never mind the number of times what was built
failed to match the plans submitted.
Suffice it to say all this eventually resulted in my
sitting before an FBI agent and presenting the incredible
mountain of data given to me by concerned citizens
couple of months since I had quit the Planning Board.
Shockingly a lot of the stories were from people
who expressed actual concerns for their physical well being and were
only comfortable telling me their story because I had so forcefully
quit my post.
I had resigned in disgust launching a flurry of
newspaper articles, and I did it because the Town
seemed bent on destroying an elderly gentleman's peace of mind and
safety during the last few months of his life.
A developer had been allowed to excavate a 30 foot drop
of close to 90 degree slope within four feet of the guy's garage with
not so much as a safety fence or a scattering of grass seed on the
slope to prevent run-off and collapse.
It was unclear who actually owned the development
project and property.
Of course it was illegal mining, and of course it
was an illegal slope, and of course it was horrible, but people who
should have known better would look right at that cliff and say,
"Well, yeah...it looks like 90 degrees, but they say it is 45
degrees. And it looks like 4 feet from the garage, which I know you
measured with a tape, but they say it
is 25 feet so it must be."
And that as they say, was that.
Even after I resigned, the local newspapers were totally worthless for
getting this information clearly displayed in front of people, and when
that pushed me into being the de-facto candidate for Town
Supervisor, I was astonished how the number of people attending
organizational meetings doubled for each event.
In particular I was jolted by an early evening
cheer burst from a hundred or so people waiting as I arrived to
walk down stone steps onto a
homeowner's backyard deck where a passionate political meeting
was about to begin.
Fortunately I saw right away that all those people
were just looking for me to go fix a problem that only existed
because they had done nothing (absolutely nothing at all) on their own.
Their plan was to show up on a Tuesday, pull a lever
beside my name, and then go straight back to doing nothing (absolutely
nothing at all) on their own.
I wondered where they had been for the last eight
years while week after week, meeting after public meeting, policy was being set and the landscape around them redefined
merely stayed home and complained about City Hall.
Finally one of the people I was involved with in this
Town Supervisor election incident (who was aggressively pressing me to run) finally blinked and said, "Ok,
then I will run," and I moaned such a
sigh of relief that I am still buzzing today.
I am not surprised that enough people have now stayed
away long enough to allow the newest Town Board to be easily convinced Ray Johanson and his slow, old timey process is
the cause of all that ills the Town of Chester.
I am sure they were deftly led to believe the easy
answer to their woes was to replace Ray and Donna with computers.
Take it from me those Town Board Members are clueless
about what is
going to be required to automate the Planning Board process.
Plus I don't need to be
there to know that none of this is about upgrading the process anyway.
It is about hiding the process.
It is really about a large tract of land on the
northern corner of the Town that has been on the slate for
overdevelopment since before I was a Board Member.
Here is how that works.
When our Town Engineer was removed by the DEC for
fudging numbers regarding Moodna Sewer District (soon after my
resignation but unrelated to it) somebody told me,
"Things have changed."
I responded, "Since his actions were never based on
his authority, it is unlikely that removing his authority has
changed his actions."
Remember the mountain of information I was given
after my resignation?
Turns out some projects never made it to the
Planning Board, because the Town Engineer sat just inside the
entrance to Town Hall where he could intercept applicants and make
his own "arrangements" side stepping the review process.
Ironically the DEC fined and then removed him as Town
Engineer but allowed him to stay on as head of the Sewer District
(the proximate cause of his firing where he was caught fudging numbers),
so his particular style of influence probably remains unabated to this day.
On another hand the Town Attorney has had his own problems with such
things as being only one day away from indictment by the NYS Attorney General
when $120,000 appeared out of thin air to pay off a fine, a
contract, or something like that.
I was amazed at the time, but that was before 9/11
and my understanding of terrorism and
a monetary system based on passing around large amounts of money
of mouth alone with no paper trail.
It explains in part why the FBI agent I pleaded with only shook his head saying, "Sometimes we can, but not
often," after I suggested, "I can't look at the bank records, but
I'm sure you can."
That was with regard to the Town Attorney really being the
(stealth) largest developer in the Town.
All things pointed to the Town Attorney being
partnered with the Town Engineer and some other
Town Officials to work in concert keeping out all who might compete
These cronies were using taxpayer dollars to subvert
the process while avoiding the cost of conformance with health and
In fact one of the Town Board Members (who was also Town Supervisor
at one point) actually received a weekly paycheck as an
employee of the Town Attorney.
Town Supervisors unilaterally decide what items make
it onto the agenda for Town Board Meetings, so if a record of
any action was to be avoided—well, I'm sure you get it—some things
were just never
discussed before the public.
You may remember: zoning arose from the thought that it
might not be such a good idea for people to be living covered in
soot under a toxic cloud from industrial coal furnaces, and the
police are charged with protecting people, so police powers can be
used to enforce zoning for safety concerns.
Along with that people are supposed to have easy access to the
records of what their government is doing on their behalf (despite
people rarely asking), so it would certainly be a good idea
to get all this stuff on a computer then online.
Except that ain't gonna happen.
At the very end of my time on the Planning Board,
when I was trying to track down the true owner of the illegal mining operation
with its cliff next to the
elderly gentleman's garage, I was in the Chester Town Hall going over old records.
I asked the Town Clerk, "With regard to this research I am doing, I am not being given access to these records
just because I am on the Planning Board, right?"
I continued, "Let's say if I was not on
the Planning Board, I could still come in and go over this stuff
She said, "Of course... these are public
records and everybody is allowed to see them any time they ask."
She continued in a whisper, "But, Bob, if you value your
position on the Planning Board be careful. I mean that. Be careful."
I replied, "That reminds me. I have something in
my car for you."
I went out and brought back my resignation.
After that I was never allowed even a cursory glimpse at Town
documents ever again.
The Town workers would merely shoot a glance over to
the Town Engineer's Office while politely putting me on hold as in,
"We've been very busy and haven't gotten a chance to make the
copies. Come back later."
I therefore became a rather toxic pariah, so I know
exactly what Ray Johanson must be going through.
people are bailing out and refusing to state publicly what they are
telling him privately.
I want to buck that trend in no uncertain terms, so let me make this perfectly clear.
Town Board did not get rid of Ray Johanson because his
process was outdated, slow, or wrong in any way.
What he and Donna were doing was beyond excellent and
to a standard that very few, even of those charged to educate people
on such matters, can begin to understand.
What is actually happening is this:
The Town is setting up a better system to deny public
access to public records at
hyper speed to make it easier for the same few people to continue profiting from behind their curtain
while avoiding the
expense, effort, and time it takes to construct competitively safe, secure, and long
Something similar to Ray's dismissal (and for the
same reasons) happened previously when the Town Building
Inspector was trying to enforce a restriction about not expanding a
development until adequate sewer existed.
The Town Board enacted
a whole new law just to pull him off the case.
In one of the related public meetings I actually
watched the Town Engineer
hold the Health Department ruling on the matter over his head and wave it
around half shouting, "I don't know why the Health
Department even has this phrase about the sewers in here.
It must be an error copied over from some other agreement!"
I watched as the Town Board went for it while I sputtered
and was told to shut up.
The sewer restriction was then disregarded, and the Building Inspector was required
by law to ignore it—by the newly
enacted just for this purpose custom law.
Just like then, I cannot do anything about the current situation
as they dump Ray Johanson in order to get away with ever
I assume the movement to dismiss Ray was only made possible
(at last) because somebody finally got a smart phone
and now thinks they know something about computers.
Doesn't much matter one way or another.
Town Board's action to dismiss Ray
is nothing more than a hit job to get him out of the process.
If the Town Board had said, "Ray, you have to
computerize," he would have done it as fast and certain as it
can be done.
Any competent IT professional will tell you that
one process is never destroyed while its replacement is being
Both systems should run concurrently until the bugs are
worked out of the new system.
In the case of critical Town documents,
continuity of their creation (by an approved and transparent
process) along with careful handling to maintain provenance and
protect authenticity is
It is unlikely the Town Board has a clue
about such things.
They write things down or ignore them at their whim...
or rather the whim of those behind the scenes who are actually in
For my part the least (and only) thing I can do is
use my significant technical skills to make sure that if anybody ever
googles Ray Johanson, Planning Board Chairman for the
Town of Chester, they will likely come across this writing.
This page will provide a contrast to the nonsense about
that has been posted by the
Papers that will write down and publish anything they've been told.
But I can tell you this:
Ray Johanson is one of the few people on this planet
who has gained and maintained my enduring trust and respect.
Ray Johanson is a great man, and somebody should
make sure it is said.
An Internet search should
look like this.
You will notice that several documents below
the returns for American Road Cycling have Ray's tenure at 23
years instead of the truth which is 39½ years.
Now what are we going to do?
Original publication: 02/03/2009
By: Bob Fugett