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by: Bob Fugett

this page last updated: 01/05/2013 11:39:54 AM

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 same question.

"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 and so 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 impressed."

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 distorting.

For example take the recent happenings in the Town of Chester. [circa 02/03/2009]

The 39½ 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 maintaining.

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 his own 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 local stream.

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 said.

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 schools.

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 handled?"

"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 connection.

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 to me 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.

But no.

Instead let me tell you more about Ray Johanson, the  39½ year veteran of the Planning Board who just got tossed, and the superb process he had implemented and maintained.

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.

Any meandering 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 process.

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 Johanson.

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 actually experiencing.

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 citizens.

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 conversation.

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 were concerned.

The Town Engineer and Town Attorney along with the Town Board (all separate from the Planning Board) posed another story altogether.

Here is part of that story.

The Town Board legislates while the Planning Board administrates.

The Town Board and Planning Board each have their own Engineers and Attorneys as part of the separation of powers.

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 above?

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 stop.

Didn't matter much to him, because by then he was already 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 vagaries.

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 during the 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, 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 forever.

They 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 hawala... a monetary system based on passing around large amounts of money thru word 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 with them.

These cronies were using taxpayer dollars to subvert the process while avoiding the cost of conformance with health and safety requirements.

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 anyway, right?"

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.

Lots of 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.

The 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 lasting projects.

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 nastier nastiness.

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.

The 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 implemented.

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 especially important.

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 charge.

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 Ray's dismissal that has been posted by the local newspapers.

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


this page last updated:
01/05/2013 11:39:54 AM

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