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Sep 2, 2009 3:58 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Village officials have been overcharging for wedding ceremonies

Sep 2, 2009 3:58 PM

Several current and former Westhampton Beach Village Board members have unknowingly overcharged couples to officiate their weddings—a practice that landed Brookhaven Town Clerk Pamela Betheil in handcuffs on felony fraud charges in July.

With the exception of current Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller, who never charged for the service even though he has conducted four weddings during his tenure, the village’s marriage officiants, who also sit on the Village Board, have been collecting $200 in gratuities from brides and grooms, even though state law caps the fee at $75, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Since 2006, the village’s marriage officiants—Mayor Teller, Trustee Toni-Jo Birk and, up until this July, Jim Kametler—have performed 18 weddings, charging the $200 fee for 13 of them, according to village records. In addition to the four weddings overseen by the mayor, Mr. Kametler did not charge the $200 fee when his stepdaughter was married in August 2007, according to documents. Board members Hank Tucker and Joan Levan have never officiated weddings, according to village records.

Ms. Birk, who performed eight of the 18 ceremonies carried out between August 2006 and May 2009, making $1,600 in the process, said she charged $200 per service only because she was told she could collect that amount. She said she never questioned the figure because it was a guideline set by the previous administration.

“I didn’t inquire where it came from,” said Ms. Birk, who added that she is returning $125—the amount she overcharged—to each couple she married. “I don’t think anyone heard about this law until it came up in the Town of Brookhaven.”

Mr. Kametler performed six weddings over the past two years and collected $200 for five of them, taking home $1,000. The former deputy mayor, who declined to be a marriage officiant during the village’s organizational meeting in early July, explained that he did not realize that he had been overcharging couples. He said he also plans to return the difference to the five couples he charged.

Westhampton Beach Village Attorney Bo Bishop said he doubted anyone knew about the law prior to Ms. Betheil’s arrest in July. Sources also said that board members began charging more for the service when former Mayor Robert Strebel was leading the village.

“This only came to light recently,” Mr. Bishop said. “[Marriage officers] were told what to charge. Nobody knew about any other law that said otherwise.”

Bob Clifford, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, said his office was not aware of village officials overcharging for the same service. Mr. Clifford also said that it is not clear at this time if charges would be filed against those Westhampton Beach officials who overcharged couples for marriage services.

“We can’t answer that until we see what type of evidence exists,” he said.

According to New York State law, “No public officer listed in section eleven of the domestic relations law shall be prohibited from accepting any gift or benefit having value of seventy-five dollars or less.”

That means officiants can accept and keep up to $75 per marriage ceremony, Mr. Bishop said. Mayors can collect up to $100 per ceremony.

The law further states that a municipality can pay marriage officers a wage or salary, which would come out of the village budget. Officiants cannot collect both a gratuity and a salary, Mr. Bishop explained.

The gratuity goes straight into the pockets of the officiants, meaning the village does not keep track of the money when it exchanges hands. The village does not issue any checks, though some couples might drop off the gratuity for the officiant at Westhampton Beach Village Hall, said Village Clerk and Treasurer Kathy McGinnis.

The mayor of Westhampton Beach Village is automatically given the power to marry couples in the confines of village boundaries. At the village’s annual meeting, board members are also appointed as marriage officiants. Any number of trustees can be named officiants, Ms. McGinnis said. Judges are allowed to officiate weddings, too.

Mr. Strebel, who served as mayor from 1998 until 2006, said this week that he started the trend of collecting $200 per ceremony a few years after taking office, when he had to officiate weddings after business hours. He performed more than 50 weddings during his tenure, and charged 23 couples $200, starting in 2001, according to village records.

“It was inconvenient on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon to go out,” Mr. Strebel said, explaining why he raised the rate.

There was no mention of the New York State marriage law or a cap on gratuities in the packet he was given when he performed the ceremonies, Mr. Strebel said. The packet holds the marriage certificates, marriage licence and wedding vows.

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Come on! What's the first thing you learn in Intro to Law?? "Ignorance of the law is no excuse". Who cares if these people didn't know it was a law?! They should be charged just as the official in Brookhaven was.
By Miss K. (103), East Quogue on Sep 1, 09 6:12 PM
How about rebates for those over charged.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Sep 2, 09 11:00 AM
What a perk.
By Mr Suffolk (113), Twin Forks on Sep 2, 09 3:18 PM
I'm SO sorry that it was inconvenient for Mr. Strebel to carry out his duties on a Saturday or Sunday............was he not aware of this obligation BEFORE he took office? LAZY, GREEDY, SELFISH jerk. I'm glad he's GONE!!! Now pay them back Mr. Strebel.........immediately. You're shameless.
By MaryMac (43), Riverhead on Sep 3, 09 12:22 PM
Line them all up in front of a wall and shoot them!

There, just wanted to get it in before somebody else responds to this silly story of bureaucratic ignorance with the solution of capital punishment.
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on Sep 3, 09 10:55 PM
Many public officals do not perform weddings on weekends-its understood you get married when town hall is open. Friday afternoon is NYC's biggest wedding day. Mr. Strebel was not elected to be on call Sat nights and Sunday.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Sep 4, 09 10:45 AM
1 member liked this comment
Interesting comment by Mr. Strebel. Our wedding which was performed by him was on a Thursday morning, across the street from city hall and took all of 10 minutes. It also seems that the money should have gone, at least in part, to the city particularly when the duties were performed during working hours.
By gardenhoe (1), Atlanta on Feb 10, 10 1:01 PM