Freeport's board of trustees has sued Mayor Andrew Hardwick, alleging the mayor used the village's automated phone service to make a campaign call.
Hardwick used the phone service -- a system sometimes called a "robocall" -- on Tuesday to criticize trustee Robert Kennedy for using "fear tactics" to generate opposition to the mayor's tentative 2013-14 budget. Kennedy is running against Hardwick for mayor this year with the election set for March 19.
The four trustees, including Kennedy, filed the lawsuit against Hardwick and the village in Nassau County Supreme Court in Mineola. The lawsuit seeks to limit Hardwick to only using the system for its expressed purpose of village announcements and emergency calls.
The village pays $20,000 per year for the phone service and should use it appropriately, said Thomas Levin, a Garden City lawyer for the trustees. Calls made on the system go to every listed phone number in the village of 43,000, Levin said.
"If we abuse these systems, people are not going to pay attention to them anymore," trustee Jorge Martinez said. "That system was put in place to service and protect this village."
Hardwick's attorney, Ronald J. Rosenberg of Garden City, said the mayor has agreed not to use the system until Jan. 28. Rosenberg said he is confident he will reach an out-of-court settlement with the trustees before that date.
"In these economically hard times, the last thing the taxpayers' money should be wasted on is for lawyers to fight stupid lawsuits," Rosenberg said.
Kennedy said the automated call demonstrated "poor leadership" on Hardwick's part.
Hardwick's phone call defended his proposed $70.4-million budget, which would increase taxes by about $316, to about $3,834, for the owner of an average single-family home in Freeport. The call said village finances "took a hit from [superstorm] Sandy," and that Kennedy has campaigned against the budget "for his own self gain."
Hardwick's budget proposal is up for a vote on Jan. 28 -- and trustees have said they are attempting to scale it back before then. The spending plan sparked a protest on Thursday night outside Village Hall by residents who say the proposed tax hike is too steep.
Hardwick issued a statement Thursday that said the budget is "almost a zero increase" outside of mandated costs such as pensions and health care.