Village of Bloomingburg refuses to allow vote on its own dissolution

Downtown Bloomingburg in August, 2008. Photo by Daniel Case; published on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license.

It seems Bloomingburg wants a little less government. About 100 residents of the Sullivan County village -- population 420, as of the 2010 census -- have signed a petition seeking to hold a public referendum on dissolving the village government.

But the village has refused to consider the petition, first by being curiously absent from the village hall, where petitioners tried to hand-deliver it, and later by rejecting it outright.

The plot thickens: Village clerk Susan Berentsen, who rejected the petition after consulting with the village's lawyer, is married to village mayor Mark Berentsen, a situation petitioners claim is creating a conflict of interest.

The Sullivan County Democrat reported this week on the dustup between the Rural Community Coalition and the village of Bloomingburg. The RCC's founder, Holly Roche, told the Democrat that she has been stymied by village officials in her efforts to serve the petition:

"She [Susan Berentsen] never once made herself available to receive the petition," explained Roche in an interview with the Democrat. "We hand delivered a letter to Village Hall on October 9 requesting to meet with the clerk and village attorney [John Kelly] where we could have formally served the petition but that request was completely ignored," said Roche.

"Then on October 24, myself, Bill Herman and Christen Grassly (both RCC members) went to the Village Hall personally and, although their posted hours are supposed to be 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., the office was closed," added Roche.

Not sure how to proceed with the matter, Roche said she reached out to the Department of State (New York), and was told that with all of her previous attempts at serving the village having failed, to go ahead and mail the petition.

"One of the reasons they are giving for rejecting the petition is that it wasn't hand delivered, explained Roche, “How exactly are we supposed to hand-deliver the documents if no one would make themselves available? Somehow I don't think that anything we would have handed them would have been accepted."

For their part, Kelly and Susan Berentsen claim that the petition has over 120 errors in it, although they have not been willing to speak with the press about the petition. The Times Herald-Record reports:

Berentsen invalidated numerous signatures on technicalities. For example, Roche said, some were rejected because the person didn't include a middle initial or record "NY" in the address line or left off the ZIP code. Susan Berentsen didn't return a telephone call. Kelly declined to comment on grounds of ongoing litigation.

Roche said organizers wanted the petition back so that they could correct the alleged errors. But the village is now holding all the documents.

"The issue about not returning the petition is bizarre," she said.

Bloomingburg's drama prompted an editorial in the Times Herald-Record on Wednesday, in which the editorial board expressed dismay that small governments are no better-behaved than big ones:

According to those who submitted the petition, signatures were rejected if they failed to include a middle initial, left off a ZIP code or failed any number of nitpicking tests. And the village officials do not seem to be available for comment.

Add this to the continuing chaos in Monticello and Washingtonville and it seems clear that the form of government that is supposed to be closest to the people it serves is no better than any of the larger ones.

Monticello, another Sullivan County village, arguably has it worse: The deputy mayor and a former village manager were arrested last month and charged with coercion and official misconduct, stemming from their attempts to get a personal friend hired as a patrol officer. And just this week, Monticello's village treasurer resigned abruptly after a dispute involving a village trustee and the building inspector.