Weekly Feature

2017-09-20 / Local News

Mensch lawsuit alleges town in violation of Open Meetings Law

by KEATON T. DEPRIEST Associate Editor

Mensch Capital Partners on Monday filed a lawsuit against the Town of Amherst and the Town Board, alleging officials have not complied with the town’s own laws and codes as they relate to the proposed Westwood neighborhood.

Mensch, an investment firm that owns the former Westwood Country Club property at 772 N. Forest Road, is requesting the Supreme Court of the State of New York to intervene and direct the town to comply with its own laws.

According to a press release from Mensch officials, the lawsuit claims that despite good-faith efforts by Mensch to work with the town engineer and the Planning Board, the Amherst Town Board and town attorney have coordinated numerous illegal actions designed to accelerate the processing of Mensch’s rezoning application to ultimately reject the Westwood project before the end of this calendar year.

The release further states that most recently, on Aug. 14, the Town Board adopted a resolution that scheduled a public hearing for Sept. 18 on both the Westwood rezoning application and the draft generic environmental impact statement, in violation of the town’s own laws and procedures.

“Pursuant to town law, we argued the hearing could not be conducted until the Planning Board has issued its recommendation and the applicant has requested a public hearing,” said Dennis C. Vacco, a partner with Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman, who represents Mensch. “Judge Joseph R. Glownia determined that he would not prevent the meeting from going forward tonight based upon the fact that Mensch can thereafter challenge any decision or action which results from the meeting.”

In the release, Vacco said a hearing on the lawsuit is set for Sept. 27.

“Our lawsuit is motivated by our intention to make sure the Town Board complies with the requirements in the Amherst town code. Complying with the Town Code ensures a fair and open review of our project and is in the best interests of all parties,” said Andrew J. Shaevel, Mensch’s managing partner.

Also in the release, Vacco said the lawsuit also alleges the Town Board engaged in a series of illegally convened executive sessions, in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Vacco also alleged that the Town Board, at the direction of Town Attorney Stanley Sliwa, has abused its use of executive sessions to develop a strategy to accelerate and ultimately reject the Westwood project.

“As further evidence of the Town Board’s non-compliance with its own laws and procedures, the Town Board voted to hire outside counsel with regard to the Westwood Project to have its new lawyers then hire additional consultants so their work could be shielded by attorney client privilege, and then required Mensch to pick up the bill, which demands Mensch to pay $100,000 to reimburse the town for the work of these lawyers and consultants.” Vacco said “Each of these actions is illegal based on current town law.”

Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa disputes all of the allegations by Mensch and said the executive session accusations are speculation and he doesn’t believe the town is in violation of executive session protocols.

“You can have conferences with counsel and not have those open to the public,” Sliwa said. “How else can I give my client, the Town Board, advice without having the conversations with them?”

Sliwa added that the merits of the Westwood project were not discussed during any of the sessions, when only legal matters were addressed.

The attorney also said Chapter 108 of the town code allows the town to charge a developer if there is a need to hire an expert consultant to review issues.

“We’re dealing with a unique situation, and in order to competently deal with it, you need competent consultants,” Sliwa said. “You need to avoid the missteps.”

He said the consultants hired by the town are extra advisers to make sure that all of the documents and procedures are being followed and reviewed accurately.

“Having a second set of eyes to help you look at everything is for everyone’s advantage, especially Westwood’s,” he said.

Sliwa added that the law firm of Hancock Estabrook — the same firm chosen by the Town Board in August to provide outside counsel for matters relating to Westwood — will be representing the town during the next week’s court hearing.

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