Canton Town Supervisor faces heat over ethics, health insurance payments

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CANTON — Town Supervisor David T. Button found himself on the hot seat again Wednesday night, this time sparring with members of the public, town board members and Town Attorney Charles B. Nash.

During the two-hour meeting, Mr. Button seemed defensive as he responded to questions about whether the town planned to include a nepotism clause to its ethics policy. The meeting drew more than 20 people to the municipal building, including several who spoke during a public comment period.

The nepotism issue was prompted by concerns over how salary money came to be split between Mr. Button and his wife, Ann Denice Button, who no longer works in the supervisor’s office.

Mr. Button was also criticized for increasing health insurance contributions for himself, Mr. Nash and Town Clerk Lisa A. Hammond without first getting approval from the town board. Earlier this week, he said the increase from $20 to $90 a month was made “voluntarily” and took effect in July.

Mr. Button said he was not required to involve the board in that decision because it involved elected officials. Mr. Nash quickly refuted that claim, pointing to a written policy the board adopted in 2002.

“That’s not accurate, I finally gotta say something here,” Mr. Nash said. “There is a policy. The town board can decide what the health contribution is. The town board tomorrow can say you don’t have health insurance or the town board can set a rate.”

Mr. Button responded, “Charles, I respectfully disagree. I believe you cannot change benefits for elected people mid-term.”

Mr. Button said case law supports his belief that the town board does not have authority to increase health benefit payments for elected officials.

“Do you have objections to us paying more?” Mr. Button asked Town Councilman Robert J. Washo.

Mr. Washo responded, “I have objections to breaking town policy that clearly says it’s a town board’s decision.”

He said Mr. Button should have recused himself from the issue because it directly affects him.

“Not only should you not run solo on this, you should step aside and it should be a board issue,” he said. “I was forfeited that opportunity to follow through on town policy because you took it upon yourself to do this without board knowledge. If we’ve learned anything in the past couple of months, we should be hyper sensitive to doing things without board knowledge. I think this is another example of the same symptom.”

Mr. Washo’s comments drew applause.

Referring to the 25 percent health insurance contribution made by many other town employees, Mr. Washo said the inequity should be addressed by the board. Councilman James T. Smith and Philip K. LaMarche agreed to serve on a committee to review the issue and report back to the town board.

Rather than just adding a nepotism clause, Mr. Button said the town board should review its entire ethics code. He said there was no problem with nepotism when he and his wife worked together.

“I think the problem is public trust,” said Dan Thomas, a resident of Farmer Street. “If you can’t see that, that magnifies the problem exponentially.”

Mr. Button responded that raising the nepotism issue at this time is politically motivated, “This room is largely filled by people who are politically opposed to my leadership in this community.”

After running unopposed for the past 16 years, Mr. Button is being challenged for the supervisor’s seat by Mary Ann Ashley, a former village mayor.

Charles Rouse said the public is concerned about Mr. Button’s decision to transfer much of Mrs. Button’s salary into his without any documentation that the board actually approved the action.

“This is where I think the nepotism thing is important,” Mr. Rouse said. “That’s why we’re all here, David.”

Paul J. Backus said, “We’ve admitted we made a mistake, by not bringing this in public minutes. It’s simple as that, we made a mistake. It didn’t cost anybody any more money.”

Resident James Norminton and his wife, Ronnie Olesker, said the town’s internal policies need to be updated following guidance from the state Comptroller’s Office.

“Being a manager of your spouse is not ethical. This is still an issue because you haven’t fixed your internal controls, you haven’t fixed your policies.”

Timothy Danehy, one of three candidates running for Canton Town Board, said members of the public will decide what they believe when they head to the polls Nov. 7.

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