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Hempstead Town sued over shelter questions

This American Staffordshire terrier was waiting to be

This American Staffordshire terrier was waiting to be adopted from the Town of Hempstead Animal shelter in Wantagh on Jan. 26, 2011. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

After months of not getting answers to questions about Hempstead Town animal shelter operations, two supporters of animal welfare advocates have sued the town to get their inquires addressed.

Attorneys MaryJean Mezzina and Elizabeth Stein filed a lawsuit against the town, Supervisor Kate Murray and Town Attorney Joseph Ra on March 19.

The complaint, filed in Nassau County Supreme Court, claims town officials' refusal to answer animal shelter-related questions during board meetings violates the Open Meetings Law.

Animal activists have raised concerns about a variety of shelter operations, including conditions inside the Wantagh facility, volunteer programs and spending.

"They should answer all questions of the public," said Stein, 57, a New Hyde Park-based animal welfare attorney. "They shouldn't be in the position to pick and choose which questions they are going to answer."

Mezzina and Stein claimed the board's refusal to answer questions was "arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion," according to the filing.

"What was going on in that town board meeting made me so upset," Mezzina, 58, said about the meeting she attended on Jan. 10 when shelter critics asked questions that were not answered.

Hempstead Town spokesman Michael Deery said: "We believe that this lawsuit is well beyond the bounds of frivolousness. What's more, the town board fully complies with the provisions of the Open Meetings Law.

In response to inquiries about the town's animal shelter, we have replied to hundreds of Freedom of Information requests in a timely manner."

New York State Committee on Open Government assistant director Camille Jobin-Davis said "there is no requirement in the law that says a public official has to answer questions or speak during a public meeting."

Murray and Ra have refused to answer questions about the animal shelter during recent board meetings, citing a pending lawsuit. They instructed that questions be submitted to the board in writing or through the Freedom of Information Act.

Three former shelter volunteers, Diane Madden, Lucille DeFina and Frances Lucivero-Pelletier, sued the town in U.S. District Court for defamation of character and violation of their First Amendment rights, saying they were banned from the shelter after making claims of animal abuse and neglect.

Mezzina and Stein said they hope their lawsuit would compel town officials to answer questions about the animal shelter.

"They thought they could do what they want and nobody would challenge them," Mezzina said. "I feel like I had to do this.

The animal shelter continues to be investigated by the Nassau County district attorney's office and the New York State comptroller's office is conducting an audit of the shelter's financial operations, spokespersons for the agencies said Thursday.


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