Nov 29


North Collins supervisor holds out-of-town job

Town Supervisor John Tobia works a full-time job near Boston, Massachusetts. He says he can handle both positions, but others have their doubts. He's been out of town for his first two monthly board meetings since taking the new job.

John Tobia, the supervisor of the Town of North Collins, recently started a new job.

In a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts.

Since October, Tobia has commuted between Boston and his small town of about 1,300, located about 25 miles south of Buffalo. He took the job a month before being re-elected, unopposed, to his third term as supervisor. 

As vice president of regional operations for The Norfolk Companies, Tobia’s gone from North Collins anywhere from two to five days per week, he and the town attorney have said. That’s led some to worry that he’s away from the town too much to effectively do his job.

In addition to working full time for Norfolk Companies, Tobia said he works 25 to 30 hours per week as supervisor. He earns $25,700 for his town job. 

Tobia’s job in Boston does not appear to violate New York’s residency requirement for public officials. It has nevertheless become a point of contention.

One resident said she felt Tobia has not been forthcoming with the public about his new job and how it would affect his role as supervisor. 

The town highway superintendent said it was “not an ideal situation.” 

And a government watchdog described the situation as highly unusual.

“When the public elects a town supervisor, there is an expectation that the supervisor will reside in the town and be present when serving the public,” said Paul Wolf, an attorney and president of New York Coalition For Open Government

“I have never heard of a town supervisor living and working out of New York state, while being paid and collecting public benefits from their New York town position.”

The town board meets monthly. Tobia, 63, a Republican who’s served as  supervisor since 2016, didn’t physically attend either of the two meetings since he began his new job in October. He joined one via a video call and missed the other due to travel. As supervisor, Tobia oversees a budget of $2 million and a staff of approximately 30. 

As a result, town attorney Richard Schaus has urged the board to consider moving the meetings to days that would better fit Tobia’s schedule. Another option: allow Tobia to participate remotely via a video conference call.

Per state law, the board would have to adopt a resolution to permit video conferencing. Wolf noted that state law only allows officials to join meetings via video call under “extraordinary circumstances.”

Tobia, in an interview, defended his new position and said he has no problem putting in “25 to 30 hours a week” as supervisor while traveling to Boston and other cities for his job. 

The Norfolk Companies is a wholesaler of bathtubs, sinks, cabinets and countertops. The firm is headquartered in the Boston suburb of Braintree, about 485 miles from North Collins. 

Tobia said his previous job, at the vinyl siding supply company Alside, based south of Cleveland, also had him on the road, so he’s used to juggling travel and North Collins.

“My job has been on the road for the last 18 years of my life. Nothing has changed. Zero,” he said. “You got a few bad eggs that are causing some waves here and that seems to be what it is.”

“My plan is to be at every meeting,” he added.

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In addition to his town salary, Tobia is enrolled in the town’s health insurance plan, which is offered to the supervisor and full-time employees. Records obtained via the Freedom of Information Law show Tobia enrolled in the plan in July. He pays $500 of the $2,000 monthly premium.

Tobia said he’s enrolled in the town plan rather than a plan through The Norfolk Companies because he lives in North Collins, not where his company is based, meaning his doctors are in Western New York.

The records also show Tobia has not charged the town for any costs related to his work travel.

Ann Converso, a North Collins resident and chair of the local Democratic committee, said Tobia successfully managed his duties and travel for work in the past and praised him for being heavily involved in town and community affairs. But she feels Tobia hasn’t been honest with residents about the change in his situation.

“You name it he was there almost always. He was a very visible supervisor, despite the fact he traveled for his job,” Converso said. “This is not that. You don’t have the finger on the pulse of this community anymore, that’s the way I look at it.”

Legal, but causing issues

Under state law, public officials are required to reside in the communities where they hold office. The state defines an official’s “residence” as “that place where a person maintains a fixed, permanent and principal home and to which he, wherever temporarily located, always intends to return.”

Tobia, according to property records, owns a home and at least 15 acres of land in North Collins. 

“He lives in the Town of North Collins and he commutes to work just like you, just like me,” said Schaus, the town attorney, in defending Tobia. “And the fact he has to go a little further than me or you is totally legal and it’s totally inappropriate for his detractors in the town to make a big issue out of nothing.”

At their meeting earlier this month, though, some board members took issue with having to accommodate Tobia’s absence.

At the meeting, run by the town clerk, Highway Superintendent David Winter questioned why the supervisor or deputy supervisor wasn’t leading the proceedings.

“I’m kinda baffled. Don’t we have a supervisor? Or a deputy supervisor? How come the Town Clerk’s running the meeting?” Winter asked.

Councilmember Ellen Mathis is paid a $1,255 stipend — total pay $7,528 — to serve as deputy supervisor. Schaus said “anyone can chair the meeting.” Mathis did not respond to an interview request. 

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Schaus said at the meeting that Tobia had asked him to “look into” video conferencing or other alternatives because he could “be out of town from Monday to Friday.” Schaus said he drafted a resolution to allow video conferencing, which has not yet been made public.

Councilmember Mike Ortiz questioned Schaus’ proposals.

“It’s a slippery slope because you’re doing all this to accommodate one person who may or may not be gone for the next year,” he said. 

Because Tobia could have his new job for years, Schaus implored the board to “at least discuss alternatives.”

“Try to address it other than just saying, ‘Absolutely not, we’re not changing anything for one person,” he said.

Tobia, in a telephone interview with Investigative Post, said that while his travel extends beyond Boston — so far to Nashville, New Hampshire and Connecticut — he’s on the phone constantly to perform his supervisor duties. He said he’s home “three days a week at least” and insisted he’s been able to put 25 to 30 hours per week into town business.

“I didn’t move. I’m still here,” he said.

He said he spent the Thanksgiving holiday in North Collins, serving meals to the public and knocking on doors to see how the community felt about a proposed solar farm.

“It’s my home. It’s the best place, you know,” he said. “There’s nothing better.”

Ortiz, a Republican board member, said in an interview he’s opposed to moving meetings or introducing video conferencing to accommodate Tobia.

“Either you accommodate what the town needs or you should not be doing this job,” he said. “If it’s a conflict it’s up to the individual to work that out.”

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