By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
A week ago, Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray said someone using former supervisor Mary Cooke's username and password deleted nearly 1,800 files from the Town Hall server sometime during the last days of her term in December. At Monday's Grand Island Town Board meeting, councilmembers addressed the issue, as well as related charges concerning the enforcement of the town code.
Islander Rus Thompson said he filed a complaint with the Erie County District Attorney and the New York State Attorney General regarding deleted files from Cooke's computer, and further said he is also "pursuing charges of abuse of public office" for what he considers the politically motivated application of code enforcement. He said the town accused him of violating zoning codes at his residence, charges he called "pure bull—."
Councilman Ray Billica read a statement at the end of Monday's council meeting, saying, "First, it has been suggested that I and others knew of the alleged deletion of town files. I would like to dispel that by saying that I had no knowledge of the alleged action until it was brought up in the public. I do not condone deletion of files that are required by law to be preserved for any publicly elected officials. I will work with the Town Board to make sure that procedures are in place to ensure the laws are followed by all the officials in the future."
"Second, it has been suggested that I and other Town Board members have been using the code enforcement department to harass the citizens of Grand Island," Billica added. "I strongly deny any involvement in any of those allegations and will state right now in public that the code enforcement department has not been, in the words of others, 'the Gestapo of the Town Board.' The code enforcement department is tasked with enforcing the codes of the Town of Grand Island and the State of New York. Are there times when there are disagreements? Absolutely. But our code enforcement officials work with those people to solve those differences, and when they can't be resolved, there is a process - processes, actually - where those individuals can seek the determination by other agencies as to who is right."
McMurray backed up Billica's first statement, saying, "that this Town Board had nothing to do with any deletion of files." He said there was no mass deletion by current members and would not speculate on the cause or reason for the deletion of what he said was "one folder on one computer."
McMurray said, "I don't want to sweep it under the rug, but I want facts to be clear about what actually occurred so there's not over-reaction."
"Do I think it's caused irreparable harm to Grand Island that we should all be outraged about? I do not," he said.
Addressing code enforcement, McMurray said, "I think we have a code enforcement officer who is very bright, and very good at his job." Whether there was collusion in the past, he would not speculate, but McMurray said it was his duty as the supervisor to join with the board "to set expectations going forward" and to work with the code enforcement department so the "town and everyone else knows there's no funny business."
Councilman Mike Madigan said the deletion of those documents "appeared to be very bad behavior." He noted the town has no evidence anything was lost.
"As a result of that activity, we will be looking at creating a policy to prevent that and hold us electeds accountable, that during transition there should be a certain expectation of retention of documents and files," Madigan said.
Regarding the code enforcement office, Madigan said he had specifically asked code enforcement office Doug Learman about past occurrences.
"I'm very convinced that he did not do anything inappropriate, he wasn't asked to do anything inappropriate, he was not enforcing for political purposes," Madigan said, calling Learman "a stand-up guy."
Councilwoman Bev Kinney agreed with her fellow council members regarding retention of document and said those who work in Town Hall have a policy "that when they put something on a government computer, it belongs to the government."