The <EM>eruv</EM> after the politics

Monday, June 16, 2008

The eruv after the politics

Once Trustees Joan Levan and Toni-Jo Birk decided to vie for "leadership status" on the Hampton Synagogue's request for the Village Board's "blessing" for an eruv chatzerot, that the application would become an issue of con­troversy was preordained.

Mayor Conrad Teller and his blood-related Village Attorney Hermon Bishop understood the temple's application, and that case law, Tenafly Eruv Association v. Borough of Tenafly, even though it was decided by the Third Cir­cuit Court of Appeals and Westhampton Beach is within the Second Circuit, dictated that the request be granted absent compelling reason to deny it.

(A plain English discussion of the Tenafly case is available at

Part of their understanding was that if the "eruv issue" wasn't handled properly, the Village could leave themselves open to a lawsuit of substantial proportions, and the Mayor, having been in the thick of earlier legal actions when he served as Police Chief, knows too well what the Verbeeck and Bergman cases cost the municipality, and, in the former action, almost cost him personally.

Tenafly forked over $325,000 for the Eruv erectors' court costs and about $500,000 for their own attorneys. The settlement of l'affaire Verbeeck was in excess of $700,000 in 1998 dollars… and that was when the Village's special counsel, after hearing the testimony of then Police Chief Teller and then Officer Jim Kametler, decided settling would be prudent!

What seems to have eluded Mayor Teller's and Attorney Bishop's cognitive grasp, though, was how little control the Mayor had over his Board.

Deputy Mayor Jim Kametler, never much of a thinker, could always be counted on to go the way his old Chief directed him¹, but the other three mem­bers could not be so easily relied upon.

Foremost among them was Joan Levan whose vision of the Village can never be said to be that of Mayor Teller's "let's slow things down and savor the flavor of yester-year" approach.

To those who clock these things with a critical eye, so goes Mrs. Levan, so goes the "new kid" on the Board, Hank Tucker², 'though he covers it reasonably well. But never doubt for a mom­ent with whom he aligns himself.

That leaves Mrs. Birk with an agenda as cur­i­ous as her fashion sense. The top vote getter among Trustee candidates two years ago, her core constituency was believed to be other "lacrosse mommies," which perception was reinforced when she went on point with the Toddler Park project.

But then, given the "Police Liaison" slot when first elected, her outrageous imposition of her unskill­ed, inexperienced micro-management³ of the Village Police Department only made sense if she was acting as a pawn of the two former law enforcement professionals on the Village Board who clearly had it in for Chief Ray Dean.

However, after they, and Mr. Bishop to whom Mrs. Birk repeatedly looked for help out during intense grilling by audience members at the May 2007 Trustees Work Session, the lady, toughened by that experience, has gone her own way.

All the while tensions between the two women on the Board quietly built in increasingly less subtle ways, until the Synagogue made their eruv proposal and each tried to outdo the other in becoming the "go-to gal" for its opponents, letting everyone know that each had been "getting 'phone calls" from alarmed citizens.

Stronger leadership from the Mayor should have kept the eruv from becoming this much of a controversy… except, while he might have brought Mrs. Birk around, getting Mrs. Levan on the program seems to be beyond even a hard-headed old Marine and cop.

And now the matter has led to the formation of the ad hoc Westhampton Beach Alliance for the Separation of Church and State, which has some money and talent to throw at stopping the eruv, and a confrontation is brewing.

So far the Synagogue's congregants have not marched on Village Hall, but their provocations is increasing.


¹.- The length to which Mayor Teller has gone to keep his Deputy Major in place at his right elbow on the Village Board includes suc­cess­ful­ly propos­ing his membership in the West­hampton Beach Fire Department, no mean feat since Mr. Kametler's disinterest in any sort of volunteer service is well known, and his acceptance was not without opposition..

².- The converse is not always true, witness this month's Village Board meeting when Mr. Tucker wisely and properly abstained on a vote related to the Westhampton Free Lib­rary, on which Board he and Mrs. Levan also sit. Mrs. Levan not only didn't abstain, but defiantly reaffirmed her "Yes!" vote despite Board Attorney Bishop's gallant attempt to vitiate her gaffe.

³.- The question must be asked of Mrs. Birk how her intrusion into Police Department affairs has worked out a year later. Not how it's worked out for "officer well being," but for the Village residents and taxpayers? Do we have the same number of policeman as a year ago, and is it costing less or more money?


1. Morris Tuchman said...

In Smith v. Community Bd. No. 14, 133 A.D.2d 79, the Appellate Division 2nd Department, which IS binding law in Suffolk County, held the same way as did the Third Circuit.

Now how do you think that Attorneys Haefeli and Bishop might have missed that?
– Dean

2. Morris Tuchman said...

I was there when Village Attorney Bishop stated that the case was on "all fours" with this one. That's where I found out about the case. In fact, the Third Circuit cites that case as well.

So I see… I've put the case on-line for those who are also unfamiliar with it.

3. Redhead Mom said...

Are those requesting the eruv, full time Westhampton Beach residents? Is this their legal primary residence? Or are these part time summer homes?

If Westhampton Beach is not the Primary Residence of those requesting the eruv, I am wondering how that would be "held."

I'm not certain what Madam means by "held," but you raise an interesting point. Thank you.

4. Redhead Mom said...

"held" .... as used by the author of comment #1 above.
"held the same way as did the Third Circuit."

Thank you for your clarification.

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