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Trustees cut Williamsville staffer's job despite mayor's objections

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Williamsville's director of community development said he had no advance warning trustees wanted to eliminate his job in a move that, again, highlights the deep division on the Village Board.

Keaton-DePriest-Williamsville (copy)

Keaton DePriest

Keaton DePriest's reappointment was on the agenda for the board's July 25 reorganizational meeting. Instead, trustees voted 4-1 to get rid of the $67,000-a-year post.

"Although this is a difficult decision to make, because it does involve people that we know, the director of community development was created at the inception of Picture Main Street for that project. And during a downturn in business at the Main Street storefronts. Rentals were down. Things were vacant. It was not considered a permanent position. That is why it is an annual appointment," Trustee Christine Hunt said that night.

Mayor Deb Rogers heatedly objected to the timing of the decision and questioned who would handle DePriest's workload. But Hunt and her allies on the board's new four-person majority said remaining village employees could take on his duties.

DePriest left the meeting moments after the vote and cleared out his office the next day.

"Honestly, that night, I was – I was really hurt. You know, I took them at their word that they just didn't want the position and they wanted to save money," he said Tuesday.

Former Mayor Brian J. Kulpa had created the community development position in 2013, when the village hired Charlie Specht, who left and later returned to The Buffalo News.

Kulpa and village trustees in 2016 hired Maggie Hamilton Winship for the post.

She moved with Kulpa after he took office as Amherst supervisor in January 2018. This created the vacancy filled by DePriest, who previously worked for the Amherst Bee.

DePriest applies for grants, acts as a liaison with community groups, writes news releases and social media posts and makes sure live-streaming technology at Village Board meetings runs smoothly, among other responsibilities.

He's a mayoral appointee, but his appointment, and the budgeted salary for the position, are subject to Village Board approval.

Rogers and two former trustees – Dave Sherman and Matt Carson – formed a three-member board majority earlier this year that strongly opposed Covid-19 rules and a state emergency health order. This spurred controversy and led to tense discussions with Hunt and another trustee, Eileen Torre, at Village Board meetings.

DePriest found himself being asked to issue statements on village letterhead that, at varying times, reflected the views of one faction or the other.

"I always tried to walk that line and, you know, appease both sides," he told The News.

Following the June election, Hunt and Torre were joined by former Williamsville Mayors Dan DeLano and Mary Lowther in a new, 4-1 board majority.

On July 25, as Rogers got to the third item on the agenda, DePriest's reappointment, Hunt interjected with a resolution eliminating the job.

A surprised Rogers criticized the proposal, wondering about the logistics of it.

Hunt said other village employees, notably Judith Kindron, the village clerk and administrator, previously carried out DePriest's duties and could do so again.

"The clerical duties can be returned to staff if needed. And we can hire a part-time person, or an intern, to take care of the rest. As a cost savings to the taxpayer, in benefits and salary, it'll be over $100,000," said Hunt, who didn't raise concerns about DePriest's job performance.

Kindron, however, said she was busy enough already and she had little to no expertise in social media and in recording and posting meeting videos.

Rogers said the abrupt move was unfair to DePriest.

"You're going to come in and blindside him on the evening of a reorganization meeting, publicly, without any prior conversation with him?" Rogers said.

Local Jewish organizations say it was wildly inappropriate for a Williamsville official to link a state health emergency rule to the Nazis' relocation, imprisonment and slaughter of Jews. Leaders from the groups said Deputy Mayor Dave Sherman's description of the regulation at Monday's Village Board meeting minimized the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during World War II.

But Hunt said the meeting was the appropriate time to make this decision – "This is reorg. This is where we do things."

After the vote, Hunt directed Kindron to take DePriest's keys and to figure out when he could return to pick up his personal effects. 

Rogers said this was an offensive way to treat a longstanding employee, but DeLano – who was mayor when DePriest was hired – said the village had an obligation to residents to secure public records and other materials.

"It's a little different in government," DeLano said. He and Hunt did not respond to messages Tuesday seeking further comment.

"It was done, just, in a very cold-hearted manner. And it lacked professionalism in every way," Rogers said one week later.

DePriest won't receive severance but will be paid $3,200 for unused vacation and personal time, Kindron said.

DePriest said it still stings to have lost his job so suddenly, and in such a public manner, but he appreciated the opportunity to serve village residents.

"I understand that they felt that they had to do something. I just don't like the way that they did it," said DePriest. "There had to be a better way."

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News Staff Reporter

I report on development, government, crime and schools in the northern Erie County suburbs. I grew up in the Town of Tonawanda and worked at the Post-Standard in Syracuse before joining The News in 2001. Email: swatson@buffnews.com

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