The controversial proposal for a trail along the former sand pit bluffs (See articles in July 2 and 16 Port Washington News, plus letters-to-the-editor) led to heated accusations from two Bogart Avenue residents at the July 14 Port Washington Police Department (PWPD) Commissioners meeting. They accused one of the commissioners of abusing his power and asked for his resignation, and they asked the department to explain a supposed 20-minute delay in responding to a call for help from a woman who lives near the proposed trail sight. The PWPD legal counsel said that the chief would investigate all accusations and report the results within a month. The accused commissioner, who started to respond at the meeting until stopped by counsel, sent a personal letter of explanation and apology a few days later to his critic.
The origin of all this heated discussion was once again the controversial Vista Trail, proposed by the Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington (Residents), to be constructed along the top of the bluffs overlooking Hempstead Harbor and the Town of North Hempstead's (Town's) new golf course in the former sand pits. A Town ordinance has prohibited trespassing on the proposed site since July 1997.
Dan Donatelli, president of the Highfield Estates (civic) Association, and owner of a house that overlooks the cliffs and proposed trail site, was the first to jar what originally promised to be a routine meeting. He read a prepared statement in which he accused the most recently elected commissioner, Robert Persons, of abusing his power and asked if Persons' actions were also responsible for the PWPD's apparent 20-minute delay in responding to a call for police help from another Bogart Avenue resident.
Mr. Donatelli described two incidents in which Residents' founder and chairman, Myron Blumenfeld, was stopped by Port police for trespassing to conduct walking tours on the proposed trail site. Donatelli said that he complained to the police the first time, Saturday, May 16, and that he does not know who complained the second time, May 30. Anyway, three days after the first incident, according to Donatelli, Persons sent him a copy of his letter addressed to the Town Board which mentions that Donatelli is not a registered voter and which requests a copy of the Town's ordinance that prohibits trespassing on the bluffs. (According to another source, the letter was dated May 19, accompanied by a May 16 police blotter report, and sent in care of Doreen Banks).
Donatelli objected to the letter primarily because it accused him of not being a registered voter. Donatelli claimed that he has been registered since 1991 and that the accusation defamed him and was a political maneuver to say that Donatelli's non-vote didn't matter. Donatelli also objected to Persons obtaining the information without filling out freedom of information requests. He accused Persons of using the police blotter transcript to further his own political agenda - to attempt to convince the Town Board to agree to place trails on the bluffs. Donatelli said Persons "has abused the authority and trust vested in him as a public servant, and should be called to task for his transgression."
Later on Thomas Bensen, the owner of another house on the bluffs of Bogart Avenue that abuts the proposed trail, went a strong step further: He said, "I think you should resign." He said Persons couldn't be an outspoken citizen one minute and a police commissioner the next, that it was an embarrassment and a conflict of interest.
Although complimenting the PWPD for previous actions, Donatelli also criticized the PWPD for their slow response time to a Bogart Avenue woman's call for help and asked if "the low priority given to her call was on orders from Mr. Persons." According to Donatelli's statement and later that of the woman herself in a telephone interview, one afternoon during the week about a month ago, she saw a gang of youths run through her yard. Several of them had blood on their faces. She called the police, but she didn't see the police until 15 minutes later (Donatelli said 20). The policeman didn't stop to tell her what he found - nothing; she had to call the police station again to find out.
In an interview several days after the meeting, Chief Kilfoil said he still had no explanation for the purported response delay because he was still awaiting dates and further information from Donatelli before conducting an investigation.
Stephen Ressa, counsel for the PWPD, pointed out that the commissioners don't usually get involved in the daily police operations that are performed by trained personnel because the commissioners are not qualified. They don't have the training or the expertise. Ressa said he would be shocked if he found any improprieties but that the PWPD would conduct a full investigation anyway and try to report back within a month.
Commissioner Persons started to respond to his accusers immediately, but Stephen Ressa, counsel for the PWPD, advised him not to. Persons therefore said, "I'll take all your comments under advisement and I'm sure we'll be communicating soon ." Donatelli added a bit of comic relief to the otherwise intense meeting by replying to Persons, whose handwriting has become very recognizable to people who receive voluminous correspondence from him, "Yeah, we're going to buy you a typewriter."
According to both Donatelli and Commissioner Persons in subsequent interviews, Bob Persons has already sent a letter of explanation and apology to Dan Donatelli. Although neither showed this newspaper a copy of the letter, Persons later said that he was sorry he brought up Donatelli's voting record, especially because the Board of Elections gave him incorrect information. Persons agreed that it was irrelevant to the issue. "Who cares," he said. Persons said he probably shouldn't get so involved in non-police commissioner issues. He also corrected what he claimed were inaccuracies in the accusations, and he modified his support for the proposed trail by saying that the town should probably wait for years of vegetation growth before developing a trail along the bluffs. He nevertheless defended the proposed trail as being potentially safer than the Grand Canyon trails and referred to the Rails to Trails that go by homes.
Contrary to the police blotter report which states that Myron Blumenfeld said that Persons gave him permission to conduct his May 30 walking tour, Persons said that he did not give Myron Blumenfeld permission to walk on Town property. Instead, after Blumenfeld expressed concern that he'd be stopped a second time, Persons advised Captain Elerby that Blumenfeld and several other people would probably be trespassing that day and asked the captain to at least go easy on them. According to Jennifer Pines, who was on the tour, the police didn't go easy on them at all, however. She said she was shocked when the police stopped them because there were no "No Trespassing" signs, and she thought permission had been cleared. (A quick survey by this newspaper on July 20, however, revealed that the town now has signs posted on or near almost every fence that bars public entry onto the bluffs.)
When asked after receiving a letter of apology if they still felt as vehemently against Persons, Dan Donatelli replied no, but Thomas Bensen replied that he had made his public comments on July 14, (French) Bastille Day and that he was even more angry than he had been before.