Lakewood Trustees Question Spending By Village Mayor

Lakewood Mayor Cara Birrittieri is absent from Monday's village board meeting in which a letter questioning expenditures was discussed. Trustee Ellen Barnes, left, composed a letter to be filed with Village Clerk Joseph Johnson that details how Birrittieri may have directed Douglas Conroe of the Chautauqua Lake Association to take lake water samples. P-J photo by Eric Zavinski

LAKEWOOD — Mayor Cara Birrittieri was absent from the Lakewood Village Board’s meeting Monday as her fellow trustees discussed whether water samples taken near village shores at her request was considered an “unlawful expenditure” without full board approval.

Trustee Ellen Barnes said Douglas Conroe, executive director of the Chautauqua Lake Association, told her that the mayor directed his organization June 12 to take water samples of Chautauqua Lake in the waters near village shores because the mayor and some residents had been concerned that herbicides were applied in Lakewood waters, a practice that had not been approved.

While test results were negative for herbicides Aquathol K and Navigate, Barnes’ concerns were raised in a letter as to why Birrittieri allowed the testing without the approval of the other four board members.

During a discussion over the letter, trustees Ted McCague and Douglas Schutte did not agree that Birrittieri even asked for the tests to be done. McCague elaborated further, that even if she had, the total $853.40 charge was allowed within the scope of her budget as mayor.

Trustees Barnes and Randall Holcomb signed the letter to be filed with the town clerk because they said they were following an appropriate timeline in which to let the claims be known.

It wasn’t until July 23 that the board was made aware of the expenditure when an invoice was sent. The board authorized the village treasurer Monday to pay the CLA for its water testing. Funds will be drawn from the Lakewood contingency account for payment. Barnes requested in writing that the village ask Birrittieri to repay the funds, and that in the absence of payment, “commence an action against (her) seeking the return or repayment of such funds.”

In her letter to the town clerk, Barnes wrote, “Mayor Birrittieri did not have any legal authority to direct Mr. Conroe to take samples of the lake water and have them tested knowing there would be a charge to the village for these tests.”

Barnes cited section 4-412(12) of New York state Village Law, which explains that a person who creates a liability to appropriate money without authority of law is personally liable for the debt. It is unclear whether Birrittieri is in violation of state law since the charge for water tests is under a $2,500 threshold, something the treasurer and McCague brought up in response to the letter.

In accordance with the same state law, Barnes filed the letter in part because trustees with knowledge of such expenditures are liable for removal from office and guilty of a misdemeanor if they do not bring the issue to light.

Barnes mentioned that this expenditure with the CLA is another instance in a pattern she has witnessed, which includes the time Birrittieri hired an attorney without board approval and agreed to pay him a retainer. The board had served the clerk a similar letter for that expenditure in September 2016.

Birrittieri could not be reached for comment Monday night.

In related news, the village board approved this year’s Lake Maintenance Agreement with the CLA. The village will make a contribution of $3,500 toward the CLA’s Lake Maintenance Program for 2018. The village board also approved a $1,000 contribution to the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy.