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Mutiny on the good ship Mendon

Christine Carrie Fien


The eyes of Monroe County are on Mendon these days, and the town is unaccustomed to the glare.

            "People in this nice little town are not accustomed to having government get this much attention," says Councilwoman Pat Freeman. "It's been a real smooth-sailing ship for a long time."

            Piloting the good ship Mendon is Supervisor Moe Bickwheat --- would-be savior to some, spoiler to others who liked the S.S. Jeanne Loberg just fine.

            Mendon mutinied last November and tossed Republican Supervisor Loberg overboard after eight years at sea in favor of a neophyte captain --- Democrat Bickwheat.

            God! Enough with the marine metaphors!

            Resentment from a bitter, bare-knuckled supervisor's race has taken root, and the stench now saturates the town and its residents. That resentment was on display at a recent town board meeting.

            "You are absolutely the epitome of non thinking!" sputtered resident Neal McNabb, searching for a crusher after a quick-and-dirty exchange with fellow resident Chris Holliday.

            McNabb accused Freeman, a Republican, of leaking inside information to Holliday --- an active player in the town GOP. Holliday interrupted McNabb's virulent cross-examination of the councilwoman --- who was demonstrably taken aback by the attack.

            "I was stunned," she says. "I've never been treated like that at a board meeting in my life."

            The points of contention in Mendon --- appointments, alleged computer tampering, and so on --- are the result of a massive communications breakdown, according to Freeman. But Bickwheat insists that nothing short of control of the town is at stake.

It started out badly. Breaking with tradition, swearing-in ceremonies for Bickwheat and town board members Freeman and Marvin Vahue were held separately.

            Such ceremonies, according to Mendon Democratic leader Joan Clawson, "are normally done with a bipartisan spirit, symbolically unifying towns for the start of a new year and a new town government."

The Mendon Town Board, except for Bickwheat, is all Republican.

            Bickwheat says the slight was deliberate. But Republicans claim the supervisor was unavailable on the scheduled date and then griped about being left out in the cold.

            "When the folks who are being sworn in went ahead and made their own plans, all of a sudden Mr. Bickwheat said, 'Oh gee, I wasn't invited,'" says former supervisor Loberg. "He said he wasn't available. You can't have it both ways."

            Freeman and Vahue's ceremony took place at the home of board member Paul Tichenor.

            Tichenor hung up on City when called for comment on this story.

            "I'm not answering any questions, thank you!" Slam!

Bickwheat was sworn in beside the Honeoye Creek waterfalls.

            Then, in what Bickwheat terms a "grossly inappropriate" action, Freeman brought her own agenda to the town's yearly organizational meeting.

            "Town law states that the supervisor is responsible for establishing the agenda," Bickwheat says.

            Freeman insists she only brought a list of items she felt had been left off the agenda.

            "I'm trying to help a new supervisor get in the saddle and get things going," she says.

The bad times kept on rolling. His computer at town hall has been totally erased, Bickwheat says. Not a single document was on the hard drive. He has contacted the district attorney about possible courses of action.

            "There was nothing on the hard drive that represented any kind of official records or anything else," he says, adding that there was some kind of massive delete that took place on one single day before he took office.

            He called in a specialist, but by that time, it was too late.

            "Unfortunately, I don't know enough about computers and what I did was, apparently I overrode what was ever on there," he says.

            Loberg thought she was doing her successor a favor.

            "I thought he would want to come in and set it all up for himself. He should have a clean slate," she says.

            Everything previously on her computer was copied to the town attorney, the town clerk, and there are hard copies, too, explains Loberg.

            "There are three copies of everything. Every single thing," she says. "Why would he want my letters on the hard drive? Can't he type his own? Every single piece of correspondence that is in his files, he can scan right back into his hard drive if he wants to."

            "If we have a hard copy, we really don't need an electronic copy," she adds. "There's no reason for that."

            Loberg also left Bickwheat 15 or 20 computer disks full of information, she says.

Appointments have been another hot issue since Bickwheat took office. The supervisor, his critics say, tries to conduct business unilaterally.

The way Bickwheat went about selecting a firm to do engineering and planning work for the town illustrates his management style, Freeman says. Bickwheat, she says, fancies himself Mendon's CEO.

            "The supervisor took it upon himself to advertise and evidently make contacts with engineering firms without town board approval and interviewed without full town board participation," she says. "Mr. Bickwheat doesn't understand that he [is] one of a five-member board and no member has any more authority than the other. You just don't break out on your own."

            The town board gave approval to advertise, Bickwheat says by way of counterargument, and he told members of the board that interviews were going to be taking place. Only two --- Roy Cluff and Vahue --- contacted him about participating.

            Bickwheat's motion to select a firm was tabled by unanimous vote at the last board meeting, following clashes between board members and the audience.

            "I was disappointed and angry that we were again getting into that kind of conflict. But I personally had a sense of relief [too]," he says. "At least stop the nonsense for the evening and let's figure out a different way to approach this."

            "It was clearly motivated by reasons far different than the selection of an engineer."

            Bickwheat asked Cluff how firms had been chosen in the past, the supervisor says, and the councilman said that the supervisor brought a recommendation into the town board meeting, offered a resolution, and it was voted on by the town board.

            "Which was precisely what I did," Bickwheat says.

            In a gesture of good will, Bickwheat says he will re-interview the firms so everyone can participate.

            "I hope that some of these engineering firms are still going to be interested," he says.

What is really going on, Bickwheat says, is that two board members --- Freeman and Tichenor --- are trying to hijack the town.

            "They want to diminish the authority of the supervisor and make it difficult for me to do the job that the electorate has asked me to do," he says. "I have a collaborative and cooperative relationship with two members of the board [and not] with the other two. And it's not because I haven't tried. Basically, they're seeking control of the town. Their loyalties are to my predecessor."

            But others say board members are just fighting to be included in a town where its supervisor considers himself king.

            "It's really a joke. It's awful," says former supervisor Loberg. "My town board is very used to being involved in everything. Never do I say to them, 'I'm going to do it, and then I'll let you know.' It was always the other way around. They could be out in the community and have people ask them questions and know what's going on and be able to answer them."

            Peter Loberg --- Mendon Republican leader and, incidentally, Jeanne Loberg's husband --- is hopeful that a newly adopted communications plan will bridge the breach between Bickwheat and the board.

            The policy states that all written correspondence affecting governance of the town will be available for review by appropriate parties in a timely manner.

            "I think the board's starting to settle down," Peter Loberg says. "If you're not aware of what's going on, it may appear contentious. But I think they're starting to find the common ground they've been looking for, and they need to quit sniping at one another."

The sniping is keeping important town business back-burnered, Bickwheat says, citing a much-needed update to the town's comprehensive plan.

            "It's huge," he says. "What you're talking about really is the whole issue of growth and development in the town of Mendon."

            Bickwheat has a supporter in resident Dennis Moriarty. The resistance Bickwheat is facing, Moriarty says, is just hard feelings left over from the election.

            "A new supervisor came in with new ideas and there were a lot of sour grapes and that carried over into the political arena," he says. "It's most unfortunate for the community. This is a small town. We need to put political differences aside and move forward."     

            Bickwheat believes things can improve.

            "I'm going to continue to maintain that the values of the town are more important than the individual wishes of some of the board members," he says. "That those of us who live in this community and want to be part of this community are far stronger than the individual desires of any one person."

            But peace and bipartisanship might be a long ways off for Mendon. The bickering continued throughout the last board meeting, despite pleas from residents to stop.

            "I'm getting sick about this. This hurts. It hurts and I don't know what to do about it," said a woman who spoke at the last town board meeting. "I just can't stand this. We have to stop. We have to stop. We have to stop."

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