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Silence speaks: Shepherd casts unusual vote

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Councilman Paul Shepherd at the March 1 Town Board meeting.

Something unprecedented happened at the March 1 Town Board meeting, at least in the memory of Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar, who has served in that office for more than 40 years.

A vote on a resolution to give taxpayer funds to the Shelter Island Early Childhood Learning Center, a private preschool for 2- and 3-year olds, went around the table with members voting “aye.”

But when it was Councilman Paul Shepherd’s turn, he was silent, looking down, moving some papers in front of him.

Supervisor Gary Gerth asked if his vote would be “abstention,” but the councilman remained silent.

Finally, he said, “Silence is, in fact, assent. That’s the rules they play by over there,” indicating Ms. Dorothy Ogar and Assistant Town Clerk Sharon Jacobs.

After the meeting, Ms. Ogar said that under the rules of order for the Town Board, by remaining silent, Mr. Shepherd was in effect voting with the majority. She said in her recollection, a silent vote had never been recorded at a Town Board meeting.

The resolution had stated that the preschool, a registered charity with New York State, was “facing a financial shortfall that may endanger its ability to operate” and by giving $10,000 to the preschool “the public interest outweighs any private benefit.”

When the matter came up at a board work session, Mr. Shepherd questioned the legality of financing a private school with public funds.

Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. said that since the school is a 501(c)3 charity, providing the money is “more of a political question than a legal one.”

There is precedent. US News & World Report has reported that more than 40 states have funded preschool programs, both public and private.

Mr. Shepherd made his decision because, as he said at the meeting, “I don’t know if we have a criteria to apply to this sort of thing. I don’t know if our job is to use public money for charity.”

The arguments in favor of releasing the funds were outlined by preschool officials at board work sessions. One reason to help finance the school, they said, will be to boost attendance in the Shelter Island School District by keeping 2- and 3-year-old students here where they would make friends and want to stay as they progressed to elementary school, rather than going off-Island for early education.

Another argument made by preschool officials is a learning center for very young children meets the need of parents who would be able to send their children to some preschool classes so the parents can hold jobs necessary to sustain their families incomes.

Both arguments were reiterated briefly by Mr. Gerth and Councilman Jim Colligan before and after the vote.

Mr. Shepherd questioned why “we’re trying to focus our efforts and our money without any managerial input.”

He said other methods could be explored to help the preschool, such as “matching funds” or “a grant of some kind.”

The councilman also warned of a slippery slope ahead, saying, “I don’t know where this ends as far as good causes go.”

Up for reelection in November, Mr. Shepherd said he’s aware of the political situation, noting the “political benefit, or detriment, to voting ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ Other than that, I really don’t hate kids.”

Mr. Colligan said his colleague had made several good points “and we should consider them for the future. We don’t want this to become a common practice.”

Mr. Gerth weighed in by noting that “this is a one-time donation. We do try to help the community.”

The vote was then taken, with four votes for allowing the funds, and one silent vote, which according to the rules, made the decision unanimous.

Mr. Shepherd, explaining his decision, told his colleagues, “I can’t vote against kids. Just don’t ask me again.”