Manorhaven trustees walk out of meeting after dispute over appointed village attorneys

Manorhaven trustees walk out of meeting after dispute over appointed village attorneys
The Village of Manorhaven's Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday night became contentious after a dispute over the hiring of a village attorney between the mayor and three trustees. (Photo by Cameryn Oakes)

The Village of Manorhaven’s Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday evening turned contentious and led to three trustees walking out of the meeting after a dispute with the mayor due to his decision to hire village attorneys from Harris Beach PLLC.

After the meeting, Mayor John Popeleski told Blank Slate Media that Harris Beach had rescinded its contract with Manorhaven and will no longer be the village’s attorneys.

He suggested that the decision was made by the law firm, saying their decision to leave the village was due to the board dispute.

“Here again they have stopped the operation of the village,” Popeleski said, referencing the trustees who challenged the village attorney appointment.

He said the board will address hiring a new village attorney at its work session on Wednesday. He said the board will be able to invite eligible attorneys to interview during an executive session the night of the meeting.

“I have pressing matters that are very time sensitive that right now I can’t discuss,” Popeleski said. “Eventually I will let the public know, but right now I got to get someone in to get going.”

At the board’s organizational meeting on July 5, Popeleski presented a resolution to appoint attorneys Jared Kasschau and Brian Stolar as the village’s attorneys. Both attorneys are with Harris Beach PLLC, a New York-based law firm.

Deputy Mayor Harry Farina asked the board to table the resolution as he was not ready to move forward with a vote. He said that he had met with Stolar and they had “never had a good connection.”

No vote was taken on the resolution at the organizational meeting.

Stolar was present at the meeting Wednesday night as the village attorney.

Trustee Khristine Shahipour said she is concerned about the appointment of the village’s attorneys.

She said that since the board never voted on the resolution to appoint the attorneys, there is no contract or retainer between the attorneys and the village. She said Stolar confirmed this via an email on Monday.

Popeleski said he had signed a retainer with Harris Beach and that he has the power to appoint who he wants to legally serve the village.

“So we’re nothing here?” Shahipour asked the mayor. “It’s just you?”

Shahipour said the board was not notified that the village had entered this contract with Harris Beach.

When she asked Popeleski why he did not discuss it with the board, he said it was because they are against him and had presented a resolution previously behind his back. He called their actions “criminal” and said it had hurt him as a mayor.

“I really wish this board would just put their trust in me and just say ‘you know what mayor, you’re going to make the right decision and we’re going to stand behind you,’” Popeleski said.

The mayor said the board is trying to overthrow him, which the trustees unanimously disagreed with.

Shahipour said that Popeleski does not listen to the board and that he only wants it his way.

She said she was also concerned about the appointment of the Harris Beach attorneys as they were recommended by the village justice.

“What is the supposedly non-political village judge doing by inserting himself into this?” Shahipour said. “Does the village judge stand to benefit outside of the village for bringing Harris Beach into the Village?”

The three trustees – Shahipour, Farina and Monica Ildefonso – were in favor of reappointing former village attorney Genevieve Lopresti.

Popeleski said he didn’t believe the village’s previous attorney was capable of handling the job properly and he needed to hire a law firm that would “straighten things out.” The Harris Beach attorneys, he said, are doing that. He said there are a “lot of stuff coming down from the state,” but did not specify what those legal concerns were.

“There’s a lot of legal things coming down the road that this board doesn’t understand,” Popeleski said.

Trustee Jeffrey Stone said the board members received an email with 13 legal concerns the village would be facing. The board would not elaborate on when asked by residents.

“It’s a big, big mess right now,” Stone said.

Popeleski said he had spoken with other law firms, but many did not want to work with the village due to its history.

Stone said he was satisfied with the appointment of the attorneys due to their variability in legal support. He said that, while he proposed a different attorney to represent the village, he also supported the appointment of Harris Beach to prevent a stalemate on the board.

“You really can’t do better,” Stone said. “That they’re willing to work with this village for a high capacity and I think we can get things under control in no time… This can go on for quite some time. It’s very time sensitive, they’re very qualified and you have to acknowledge that.”

Shahipour presented a resolution to meet at the earliest date to interview potential attorneys for the village, replacing the appointed Harris Beach attorneys.

The resolution was seconded by Farina, but no vote was carried out because Popeleski, through his power as the presiding officer, did not grant the motion for the resolution to be voted on.

Popeleski said the resolution was another example of the board going behind his back because they do not want to work together. Shahipour countered and said the board does want to work together but that Popeleski does not listen to the board members.

“We do want to be united, but it’s like we’re being forced,” Shahipour said. “Anything that you want to do, we were forced into doing it your way. That’s where we’re not united.”

After the mayor blocked the vote, Shahipour, Farina and Ildefonso walked out of the meeting, preventing a quorum on the board and forcing the meeting to stop.

As the board had not yet voted on the General Fund Abstract – which authorizes the village to pay its bills – both the village clerk and attorney went outside to speak with the three trustees and ask for at least one to return to continue the meeting.

All three returned after 15 minutes.

After the trustees returned, they voted to approve the general fund abstract and to hire a Spanish-language interpreter for the village court.

A motion was also presented to appoint Michele Tizzano to the Board of Zoning Appeals as a member and then as the chairman, but that motion was blocked by Shahipour, Farina and Ildefonso.

Shahipour said she was against his appointment because Tizzano lacks the experience.

Manorhaven resident Richard Li said that the Village is consistently bickering and he is disappointed in their conduct. He asked them to cooperate on behalf of the residents.

“I just would like to remind you, all members, trustees, your title is trustees, we put our trust in you,” Li said.

Stolar recommended the board go into executive session for legal advice on addressing the issue, which the board did at the end of the meeting.

The Manorhaven Board of Trustees will convene again at 6 p.m. on Aug. 2 for their work session.

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