In a strongly worded response, attorneys from the New York Civil Liberties Union issue an ultimatum to City of Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane. The letter, dated September 22, 2014, advises the executive to rescind the employee gag order issued on August 6, 2014. The gag order attempts to restrict employee communication with members of the Common Council. The NYCLU gives the mayor 7 days to take action. The NYCLU has successfully sued other municipalities for similar behavior and cites State and Federal Court decisions supporting employees 1st Amendment right to free speech.
We have been down this road before…literally. Shrine Road in Auriesville, NY to be precise. The scenario plays out like this, a financially troubled Catholic Shrine sells off a chunk of its land including a former Jesuit dormitory to the Buddhist World Peace and Health Organization, who refurbish the building making it their headquarters, home and temple. Originating in China, the group renames it the Western Supreme Buddha Temple. At first they share the land harmoniously with the Jesuit Priest Murray who is very cordial and accommodating to the WPHO. In 2012 Father Murray moves on to another assignment in Buffalo and Jesuit Belgarde takes his place. Belgarde is not at all like his predecessor and begins a campaign of terror against the Buddhists, first by blocking all the access roads to their property and then refusing to meet with them to discuss the situation. This ends up in court with a dismissal after Belgarde’s supervisor, Jesuit Provincial David S. Ciancimino grants the WPHO access to their building from both Shrine Road and the gravel road off of Ripley Road built by the Buddhists and aptly named Friendship Road. This blogger documented the history of Belgarde’s campaign of terror. It can be found in the following series of links.
Apparently Belgarde does not follow orders very well. This year his harassment resurfaced like a failed exorcism. He had his maintenance worker block Shrine Road again and also block off part of Friendship Road built by the WPHO! Once again he refuses to communicate with the group and when they begin to protest the action, he has his maintenance worker tear up the road in front of the Buddhist Temple with a backhoe. When the Chinese Buddhist students begin to protest on their own property, Belgarde calls the Montgomery County Sheriffs Department. The WHPO calls the NYS State Police and we have a confrontation resulting in an injury to a 100lb. female WPHO student who was shoved to the ground by a 300lb. male Lieutenant in the Montgomery County Sheriff Department. The student was treated for her injuries in a local hospital. This incident and other unnecessary use of force during this peaceful protest was documented in still images and video. Over a dozen police officers responded when an inexperienced police officer called for backup.
The WPHO hired attorney Sarah Green to represent them and protect their rights. As much as people would like to believe otherwise, there is religious intolerance and racism inherent in this incident. There is no reason why the two groups can not exit harmoniously on this beautiful piece of land overlooking the Mohawk Valley. The Auriesville setting exudes peace and tranquility, it is too bad Jesuit Belgarde can’t see that.
They say she “means well” and Mayor Ann Thane has done a lot to improve Amsterdam’s image but the overbearing need to micro-manage every aspect of OUR City is a detriment to economic development. One would think that after serving as Mayor for five years, Thane would learn to delegate authority, trusting in the many talented people that make up both city government and the constituency. We see the control issues pop up time and time again, from censoring the populace to insisting on exerting influence on issues that are clearly not under the jurisdiction of the elected position of Mayor.
A Brief History
There was the Chalmers building fiasco:
Removing the State imposed 3% tax cap.
The City of Amsterdam Zoning Update that is being held up since 2011 by Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis:
There was the Art Center:
Raises for everybody!
A Piece of the World Trade Center that was to be a memorial to 911 still sits rotting at Riverlink Park without any fanfare, dedication or respect.
Then there was the Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency’s purchase and rehab of a building on Main Street that was held up by the Mayor’s insistence that a damaged mural by an unknown artist in the building be preserved. This blogger even volunteered to photograph the mural for the archives to help settle the back and forth debate between the Mayor and the AIDA. That situation, to my knowledge, is still not resolved.
The Current Situation
A man from Virginia, Balakumar Periyasamy, buys the former Park Hill Adult Home on 52 Grove Street in Amsterdam, New York with long-term plans to open as an assisted living facility for Veterans. To run the home the NYS Department of Health requires a license that takes about two years to get. Having invested a lot of money in building, including the payment of back taxes to the city, Mr. Peri announces his plans to open a restaurant and hotel in the 52 room complex until such time as the adult home license is approved. This project would give local jobs and add to our local economy but requires a variance from the Zoning Board and site plan approval from the Planning Board.
Bala is very excited about the plans and invites local dignitaries to visit the facility. The President of FMCC and members of his executive team visit the building anticipating the need for overflow student housing. He leaves the tour excited about the possibility commenting that it is in better shape and larger than he originally thought. Bala invites Mayor Thane to tour the building and she does so commenting how beautiful and large the building is stating she would do what she could to help him with the project. Bala then invites journalist Alissa Scott from The Recorder to hear his plans for the restaurant and hotel. Alissa writes an excellent article, published in the Recorder on December 9, 2013, that would have helped further the project along had it not been for disparaging comments quoted from Mayor Ann Thane.
Thane said she doesn’t think Peri should go through with student housing. “I actually don’t think that will work because there’s too much in the way of state regulations that would need to be done to make that ready for students,” Thane said. “The cost would be too high.”She also doesn’t think a hotel would well-suit the community’s needs. “To propose a hotel, you have a high-end hotel going in across the river at the castle and you have a Hampton Inn and they have much better locations,” Thane said. “IfI’m going to book a room in a hotel, I don’t want to stay in the room that was a senior cubby hole.”
Thane goes on to suggest what Peri should do with HIS property, stating she is not sure the area can support another adult home. This from an elected official who touted economic development in her election campaign. Bala’s vision is not for a high-end hotel like the proposal for the Amsterdam Castle or the new Hampton Inn. It is for students or the budget minded traveler, the 99% who can’t afford to stay at a high-end hotel.
Here is a business person who invested in our community buying a building that was left to deteriorate, who already employed a dozen local people to help with his project. Mayor Ann Thane’s damning comments may have a harmful effect on Bala’s project before any approvals are granted from Zoning or Planning.
My personal experience catching the criminals who stole thousands of dollars of copper from the building is chronicled in the following link.
For the greater part of 2013, this blogger exhibited much restraint in not posting political critiques or commentary but this situation just crossed a line. The Republican supermajority Common Council taking office on January 1st will dethrone Mayor Thane’s veto power. She may as well abdicate now and negotiate a compromise as she will soon be forced to trust the legislative body of the City of Amsterdam.
This post continues the ongoing unharmonious discourse between the Buddhist World Peace and Health Organization and the Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, NY.
As we learned in my earlier posts Help, Belgarde Bug Out, Buddhists Move Forward Despite Jesuit Road Blocks, and Jesuit Blocks Entrance to Buddhist Temple, Priest George H. Belgarde, S.J. has harassed the Buddhist group by erecting crude roadblocks on every conceivable entrance to the Buddhist compound and even interfering with road construction of the Buddhist owned Freedom Road.
There were problems caused by the blockade on Shrine Road including the stoppage of mail and package delivery. GPS systems brought visitors down Shrine Road only to find the road blocked. Crude signage and crime scene tape with no trespassing signs were not a very welcoming sight to visitors. The threat of arrest by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office for Buddhists who set foot on Shrine property (that is otherwise open to the public), sort of upsets the peaceful nature of the setting and the people.
Attempts to resolve the issue through local elected officials failed with not one willing to touch the politically sensitive issue. Jenny Wong, the WPHO spokesperson sent a letter to the previous Jesuit Director, Father Peter Murray, S.J. with whom the Buddhists has a very harmonious relationship that resulted in the following response,
Jennie: I did receive your letter. Thanks for that and for this reminder here, this Email, but here’s the problem:I am no longer in charge at Auriesville, and have to be careful not to speak out since I don’t know all the angles and needs, new problems, etc. So I must pause at the present time.Maybe we can talk someday by phone. . .BUt at present, I must not write any notes of “support” etc. But, I shall pray for you! I hope the rough situation can be made better, soon.Father Murray SJ (Very busy in Buffalo).
Apparently the Provincial has been
lied to misled by Father Belgarde. Shrine Road is still blocked and access to the Buddhist Temple from Shrine Road is not possible because of both the barricade and threat of arrest initiated by Belgarde. This is not the kind of neighborly stance expected.
A hearing in Montgomery County Supreme Court today established that an agreement between the parties was not possible and dates were set for motions and discovery contemplating a trial date for the civil lawsuit of September 20, 2013, at 9:30am.
These men are religious leaders, both having reached a certain level of authority among their devoted followers. Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi and Father George Belgarde, S.J. share the same age bracket. They are neighbors living within a few hundred feet of each other but that is where the similarities end. In reality, they are just about as different as one can get. They are from different parts of the world, have greatly differing belief systems, cultures and general demeanor. The Holy Master is jovial, kind and understanding while the Jesuit is angry, hostile and rude.
The Chinese Buddhist and the American Jesuit do not communicate and it is not for lack of trying on the part of the Buddhist. My attempts to communicate with Fr. Belgarde were also rejected. We cannot know his true motive because he refuses to communicate but it seems retaliatory and childish. His intent seems evil in nature.
The frustrated Buddhists are looking for help from whoever may be able to break through this impermeable barrier and foster the hope of a peaceful solution to this ever-increasing tension and hostility they now suffer. It has affected their overall mission and outlook on the local community. They feel the sting of discrimination and prejudice. This writer is a witness to this unholy war deployed by the Jesuit against his neighbor and fellow spiritual leader. Belgarde and his maintenance worker have erected a total of three barricades, blocking all access roads to the Western Supreme Buddha Temple and residence without any explanation or warning.
The third barricade blocked an old unused access road yesterday, July 9, 2013. Yellow crime scene tape was stretched across the road with a no trespassing sign taped on a post with duct tape. This barricade came with a Montgomery County Sheriff Deputy who threatened to arrest the Buddhists for entering the Shrine’s property. The Buddhists in turn called NYS State Trooper Ramieriez who explained that once informed by a police officer, they can in fact be arrested for entering the Shrine property. Trooper Ramierez also discussed the situation with Friendship Road, an access road built by the Buddhists that was also blocked in June by Belgarde who insisted the four-year old road was partly on Shrine property according to a survey he just had done. He placed a pole in the middle of the road forcing the Buddhists to enlarge the access road.
Feeling imprisoned on their own property, the Buddhists sought help from local government officials but nobody was willing to intervene. A civil lawsuit was filed in Montgomery County Supreme Court with Judge Felix Catena proposing a meeting between the groups to settle differences. This was described in my previous post Belgarde Bug Out
The next court date is July 18, 2013 at 10:00am.
The Buddhists hope NYS Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk and NYS Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara will intercede in this matter.
Today’s blog entry is for those readers following the plight of the Buddhist World Peace and Health Organization and their ongoing problem with Jesuit George Belgarde, Director of the Shrine of our Lady of Martyrs.
Last evening, June 24, 2013, this writer was informed by WPHO spokesperson Jennie Wong, that a meeting was scheduled to negotiate a settlement concerning the blocking of Shrine Road leading to the Western Supreme Buddha Temple and the residence of the World Peace and Health Organization. As a witness to these incidents and a spokesperson for the WPHO, I too was to take part in the negotiation. This meeting was strongly suggested by Montgomery Supreme Court Judge Felix Catena after preliminary statements were given in a civil lawsuit filed against the Shrine’s Director and maintenance man for blocking Shrine Road.
The agreed on meeting place was the Shrine office, 136 Shrine Road, Fultonville, NY 12072 on June 25, 2013, @ 10:30AM. The six of us approached the building and were met by attorney Carmel Greco and George Belgarde. “Only one!” shouted Belgarde as he raised his arm in what appeared to be a Nazi salute and yelled “Stop! The rest of you get off MY property!” When Yik Cheng explained to him that these members of our organization will attend the meeting, he stated “Then the meeting is cancelled” and went back in the Shrine office and slammed the door. His attorney and the Buddhists tried to reason with him to no avail. A July 18, 2013, court date is scheduled in Montgomery County, NY Supreme Court continuing the civil lawsuit.
The Buddhists paid $595,000 to the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs for this property in 2006, helping to keep the financially plagued Shrine afloat. It is despicable that they are being treated so shabbily by the Shrine’s new Director George Belgarde.
According to the Amsterdam City Charter, the Budget Review Board consists of the Mayor, five Alderman and City Controller who each have a deciding vote. The preliminary budget is supposed to be prepared by the Controller after the department heads have each submitted their proposed budget requests. March 1, 2013, is the date the working tentative budget should be presented and May 1, 2013, is the date the Budget Review Board is to adopt a final budget.
Since this writer has kept track (about five years), the budget review process has never gone smoothly. I never understood why the City of Amsterdam Controller, an elected position, had a vote on city budget matters or the Mayor either for that matter. The legislative body of government (Alderman) was formed for that purpose while the executive (Mayor) approved or vetoed legislation.
This year’s budget negotiation is without a Controller. The City of Amsterdam’s last Controller, Ron Wierzbecki, died in December and the Common Council decided to continue without appointing an interim. Instead they chose to create a Deputy Controller, an appointed position to serve in that capacity. An experienced accountant, David Mitchell was hired to the $75,000, 6 year post. Things seem to be going smoothly since he took over the reins but I’m sure he still has some catching up to do.
The City of Amsterdam Budget Review Board met on Tuesday, April 23, 2013, to hear budget presentations from City Department heads. This year’s Budget Review Board consists of Mayor Ann Thane, 1st Ward Alderman Joe Isabel, 2nd Ward Alderman Valerie Beekman, 3rd Ward Alderman Gina DeRossi, 4th Ward Alderman Dave Dybas, 5th Ward Alderman Richard Leggiero, Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis and Deputy Controller David Mitchell. Legally the Deputy Controller and Corporation Counsel have no vote on the city budget. Corporation Counsel DeCusatis certainly had his say in both preparing the budget and active negotiations. It seems he has stepped in the role of Controller. In fact, the preliminary budget was prepared by Thane and DeCusatis who took it upon themselves to add items and even new employees to the department head budgets without their consent. This revealed itself as the department heads each presented their budgets last night.
Placed in the Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course budget was a cart fee of $2.00 per cart applicable to everyone driving a cart on the course. The Review Board decided to remove that fee with Alderman Beekman stating it was unfair for those that own carts housed at the course who already pay cart storage and membership fees. There was a discussion about hiring a general manager for the course next year but that was not figured in their budget for this season.
City Engineer Richard Miller argued for increased hours for his secretary from 30 to 35 hours a week. That request was approved pending a Civil Service agreement.
DPW General Foreman Ray Halgas found a newly created supervisor position in his budget that Mayor Thane admitted she placed there. The Mayor wanted the position to keep an eye on crews and people who tend to take too long during breaks. She stated her office constantly receives calls that DPW crews are hanging out at Stewarts or other convenience stores for extended periods of time. This new employee position was voted down by the Budget Review Board. Halgas seemed a bit uneasy about the Montgomery Otsego Schoharie Solid Waste Management agreement scheduled to end this time next year with no current negotiation pending for a replacement or new contract. Alderman Dybas congratulated Halgas for finally getting both street sweepers working. Halgas stated a new sweeper will arrive this year, describing problems he has had maintaining the older sweepers.
Transportation Director Cheryl Scott presented her budget with an irregularity noticed in last year’s electric bill that the Deputy Controller stated he would help work out. As an aside, Alderman Isabel turned to the media table of reporters to state the Transportation Budget requires a taxpayer subsidy amounting to $326,000 per year to run. Low cost transportation is provided around the City of Amsterdam, to County Offices in Fonda, To Fulton-Montgomery Community College as well as daily trips to Albany, NY.
Recreation Director Rob Spagnola has taken on added responsibilities this year with the establishment the Beacon School Recreation Center and the Creative Connections Art Center. With help from a part-time Recreation Assistant, programming was created for both the young and old. The addition of Union College Baseball to Shuttleworth Park will bring astro turf paving. Spagnola asked for a salary increase for himself and full-time hours for his assistant stating he was the oldest tenured Director who loves his job and has never asked for a salary increase before. The Recreation budget also included a $10,000 revolving fund to help defray costs of programming, with the understanding that the money would be replenished from programming services rendered. His requests were unanimously approved by the Board.
Director of Community and Economic Development Rob von Hasseln completed his first year in the new position, giving a status report of developments. He reiterated that while still performing the City Historian job, he no longer receives the $5,000 stipend. Von Hasseln also stated that he saves the City money by not accepting the health insurance as he already has health insurance through his US Army retirement. Von Hasseln was also responsible for helping to create and sell the revolving fund for recreation services. Thanks Rob!
While this three-hour Budget Review Board meeting was only one of many, it does seem things are running better than earlier years. Only time (tax and utility bills) will tell.
The angry Leprechaun pictured is Fr. George H. Belgarde, S.J. Director of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, NY, who recently ordered a barricade built on Shrine Road, blocking access to the Western Supreme Buddha Temple and headquarters of the World Peace and Heath Organization adjacent to the Shrine. The barricade, built with tree trunks and a sawhorse, was adorned with a large black sign with the word CLOSED painted in red.
This blogger received a call today from WPHO spokesperson, fellow Buddhist and friend Jennie Wong who had just returned to this area from another mission in China. She asked if I would meet her at the WPHO headquarters to help figure out why this barricade was blocking access to their property at 174 Shrine Road. This barricade not only blocks Buddhists it also prevents mail from being delivered and emergency vehicles from reaching the Temple.
I arrived before Ms Wong and decided to go to the Shrine Office and ask about the barricade. A pleasant receptionist greeted me and I introduced myself stating my business. She entered the next room informing the occupants and told me I could go right in. I saw a small man dressed in black talking with someone else and heard him state “…and he has a camera”. As I approached the next room he stated, “You can wait” and went on with his conversation for another five minutes. I was met by a visibly angry and generally disagreeable little man who I found out later was Fr.Belgarde, the Shrine’s Director. I introduced myself and asked about the barricade. He declined to answer any of my questions stating he would need to see my identification. I gave him my driver’s license which he stared at for about a minute. He then asked me for documentation stating I was a Buddhist. Apparently my physical appearance differed from what he assumed a Buddhist should look like. Another man wearing a red plaid shirt entered the room and stated, “I think I’m the person you want to talk to, I put up the barricade”. He was then silenced by Belgarde, still clinging on to my license, who told the worker he (Belgarde), was taking care of this. After refusing to answer any of my questions, it appeared that Belgarde was enjoying trying to antagonize me. I then asked for my license back and left the building.
Jennie Wong and three other members of the WPHO arrived and we all took another trip down to the Shrine Office only to be met outside by the Jesuit and maintenance worker. Once again they refused to answer any of our questions, referring us to their lawyers. Ms Wong tried reasoning with the Jesuit, asking him to remove the CLOSED sign as it looked as if the WPHO headquarters was closed and not just the road. The antagonistic Jesuit then ordered us to leave HIS property. We then took a trip to the NYS Troopers headquarters in Fonda. Trooper Matt Wheeler, a true professional, listened to the story, made suggestions and agreed to take a look at the barricade and talk to Belgarde. When we returned to Shrine Road we were greeted by a Montgomery County Sheriff who quickly entered his vehicle and moved it to further block the road when he saw us coming. He then exited his vehicle and was in the process of telling us to leave when Trooper Wheeler arrived explaining the other side of the story.
The result of the debate between the law enforcement officers hinged on whether Shrine Road was a County road or a private road. It appears on maps as a County Road, in which case the barricade is illegal. Part of the original deed agreement was that an alternate access road would be built. While this road was built connecting the Temple with Ridley Road, it has not been graded or paved and does not appear on official maps, GPS or EMS response systems. The steep base of the road makes it difficult to travel without sliding.
What was once a harmonious relationship under the Shrine’s former Director Fr. Murray is now antagonistic and non-communicative under the direction of Fr.George H.Belgarde who appears to have an ax to grind.
Can’t we all just get along?
Journalist Ed Munger Jr. wrote a great, objective article about this incident titled “Surprise barricade cuts Buddhist Temple access”. It is published in the April 8, 2013, edition of the Daily Gazette. The article can be found at http://www.dailygazette.com.
Around this time last year, the City of Amsterdam, NY realized it owned a building recently vacated by St Mary’s Hospital Outreach Center. Several organizational meetings were held by Mayor Ann Thane to get public comments on just what to do with this building. There were several great suggestions including a Community Recreation Center. Through a series of missteps that did not include required approval from the Common Council, a handpicked committee was formed with the intended purpose of managing and running an Art Center. This committee then became a private entity that would have control of a city owned property again without any advice from the Common Council, the legislative body for the City of Amsterdam. Creative Connections became very non-communicative, refusing to hold public meetings and would not answer any of my email inquiries. Aside from a couple of art shows, there was little action from this committee or programming for the public.
Throughout this process, I recommended to both the Mayor and the Creative Connections Committee, that they get approval from the Common Council as required by law,before proceeding any further. My suggestion was ignored creating a great deal of animosity.
At last nights meeting of the Amsterdam Common, a resolution was presented for approval that transferred funds to pay for furnace repair, carpeting and painting of the Creative Connections Arts Center. This brought about a long needed discussion by Council members about why they were never consulted regarding the use of this building.
I commend Alderman Valerie Beekman for standing up to the Council with a direct criticism of the way the Art Center has been handled, at the same time expressing the importance of continuing to move forward and do things the right way as an example to our kids. She pledged to donate the rest her salary to pay for expenses incurred.
Left out of today’s Recorder article describing last night’s Council meeting, was my formal request that one of our Aldermen propose a resolution dedicating the building at 303-305 East Main Street as a Community Recreation Center. The approval of this resolution would, by law, put the management under control of the City Recreation Committee and would allow them to directly receive funding and grants for programs and improvements. This would increase public confidence in the center by providing a documented, public flow of funding with no appearance of impropriety. It would also open the center for use by the entire community and allow the Recreation department to charge a usage fee, relieving some of the tax burden.
I believe my suggestion was taken seriously and that we will see some movement on this proposal.
We also discovered at last nights meeting that the security camera systems donated by the Buddhist World Peace and Health Organization last July were finally being installed by Michael R. Parillo. An example of the mounting device designed by Parillo is displayed in the next photo between Corporation Counsel Gerard Decusatis and Alderman Joe Isabel.
There is still time to buy tickets to the Mardi Gras Dance Party Fundraiser sponsored by the Amsterdam Waterfront Foundation on Saturday, February 9, 2013, starting at 5:30pm. All proceeds go to fund the FREE 2013 Amsterdam Riverlink Park Summer Concert Series. You may buy tickets directly from the website www.riverlinkconcerts.com.