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Apr 7, 2010 1:01 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Village Board meets with labor attorney for first time in months

Apr 7, 2010 1:01 PM

Westhampton Beach Village Board members met with their labor attorney behind closed doors on Tuesday—the first time they have all gotten together since December—to discuss what they should do about two previously suspended Westhampton Beach Police officers.

But even after the three-hour meeting, which was not open to the public, it doesn’t appear that the trustees are all on the same page regarding whether or not they should reinstate charges that were filed against Police Officers Michael Bruetsch and Joseph Pesapane and ultimately hold disciplinary hearings.

During the meeting, Mayor Conrad Teller, who originally suspended the officers late last year, said that labor attorney Richard Zuckerman presented board members with a legal opinion and made some recommendations. While he could not reveal what was discussed, Mayor Teller said there were “no resolutions,” adding that he was going to give his fellow board members a couple of days to digest all the information presented Tuesday.

“There are a couple of options they have to think about,” he said. “It was a business meeting with conflicting opinions.”

Mayor Teller also reiterated his opinion that charges should be reinstated against Officers Bruetsch and Pesapane, and that he will move forward with trying to get those scheduled. “I’m still convinced that the only way to go is a full-fledged civil service hearing in regards to the two officers,” he said.

Village Board members have disagreed over whether or not to hold disciplinary hearings for Officers Bruetsch and Pesapane, who were suspended in October after a Suffolk County Police Internal Affairs Bureau investigation concluded that they lied to their superior officers about the circumstances surrounding a fellow officer’s missing handgun, which was later recovered. The disciplinary charges filed against the officers were dropped and the pair was ordered back to work in December by the majority of the board, despite the objections of Mayor Teller.

When reached Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Zuckerman declined to comment on what was discussed during the executive session. He said he could not say anything because he would be violating attorney-client privilege.

Though she also declined to divulge details, Village Board member Toni-Jo Birk did say that Tuesday’s meeting was a reiteration of information she already had in her possession. Like the mayor, Ms. Birk wants to hold disciplinary hearings and said that the other board members need to think hard about what was discussed before moving forward.

Village Board members Hank Tucker and Jim Kametler did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday afternoon, and board member Joan Levan declined to comment when reached the same day.

Mr. Tucker, Mr. Kametler and Ms. Levan all voted in favor of dropping the charges and reinstating the officers late last year. In a previous interview, Ms. Levan and Mr. Tucker said they decided to take that course of action after meeting with Mr. Zuckerman, who is employed by Lamb & Barnosky in Melville.

For the past four months, Mayor Teller has tried to get disciplinary hearings scheduled for the officers by introducing seven resolutions at board meetings. He even obtained supporting opinions from Mr. Zuckerman and another labor attorney, Vincent Toomey. Their opinions cite the New York State Civil Service law that pertains to holding disciplinary hearings, and Section 30 of the Westhampton Beach Police Rules and Regulations. That rule states that any officers that the police chief deems to be incompetent of fulfilling their duties “shall be subject to disciplinary action by the Village Board of Trustees, after a hearing upon written stated charges.”

Mayor Teller decided during last week’s board meeting, held on April 1, to hold off on reintroducing 11 resolutions pertaining to the two officers and a separate request in which the board’s majority is seeking personnel records from Westhampton Beach Village Police Chief Ray Dean. The mayor said last week that he would hold off on reintroducing the measures until the board had a chance to meet with Mr. Zuckerman.

“In the spirit of cooperation,” Mayor Teller said at last Thursday night’s meeting, “the next 11 resolutions are put on hold.”

Seven of the resolutions pertain to moving forward with the disciplinary hearings for the two officers. The other four call for rescinding the board’s demand for police records, including discipline records, audio and video evidence, firearm ownership records and penal law offenses. The request for police records was approved by Ms. Levan, Mr. Kametler and Mr. Tucker, who stated that they need the information to decide whether or not to move forward with the hearings.

But Chief Dean’s attorney, Michael Axelrod, blasted them last month for demanding those records, saying that their resolutions were illegal. Mr. Axelrod, of Certilman, Balin, Adler & Hyman, LLP, in East Meadow, also stated that the release of such records would jeopardize a possible lawsuit against the village if Officers Bruetsch and Pesapane decide to move forward with the notices of claim that they filed separately against the village in early March. The notices list Village Board members and Chief Dean as defendants, and charge them with forcing the officers to work in a hostile environment, treating them unfairly, and committing libel and slander against them, among other things.

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