Over at The Gossips of Rivertown, Carole Osterink reports that the debate about whether Standard Oil occupied a key parcel in the City of Hudson has been settled—with skeptical citizens fully vindicated.
The City’s title searcher has belatedly conceded to Giff Whitbeck (who strove mightily to prop up his law partner Cheryl Roberts’ untenable claims) what resident researchers such as Tim O’Connor and Cheryl Stuart already knew. Namely, that the oil company most certainly did have a presence on the acreage in question.
The immediate impact of this tardy and grudging acknowledgement should be for the City to stop dodging a full environmental assessment of the land they want to acquire. But don’t hold your breath on that due diligence. Given Roberts’ monomaniacal obsession with securing State approval for her deeply-flawed waterfront plan at any cost, it would hardly be surprising if some new rationale for ignoring potential contamination emerges.
There ought to be another, more lasting impact of this sorry episode: Hudson elected officials finally may be forced to doubt the integrity of their counsel’s advice.
A review the recent reporting on how this matter was handled does not redound to the City’s credit, to put it mildly. There’s no getting around the stark fact that the claims and retorts emanating from the official side of the table in response to sincere, well-researched citizen input have been egregiously (and even offensively) mistaken. Officials took their experts’ vague assurances as gospel, while undercutting every piece of citizen research, at their own peril.
Start with the howlers contained in The Register-Star’s April 21st, 2013 article:
- Common Council President Don Moore in response to a well-researched memorandum about the land transfer from Citizens In Defense of Hudson, lectured Stuart “to be careful with her accusations.”
- Attorney Roberts was even more condescending in her response, thundering at Stuart: “You are so completely wrong in your legal assessment of that document, I don’t even know where to start.”
- Roberts also told the Council that “The Standard Oil piece is north of the port.”
Now head back to Gossips on April 18th:
- “At the informal Common Council meeting on April 8, city attorney Cheryl Roberts reported that the title searcher hired by the City had not discovered Standard Oil ownership of any land south of the port.”
- “Roberts addressed the issue by saying that there was ‘a serious misunderstanding about what a title search is.’”
- “Roberts' placement of the Standard Oil property was confirmed by Alderman Cappy Pierro (Fifth Ward), who said that ‘oil barges pulled up where the Spirit of Hudson docks now.’”
Gossips continued its pursuit on April 25th:
- “City attorney Cheryl Roberts questioned whether there were such things as oil tanks in 1888.”
- “Assistant city attorney Carl Whitbeck provid[ed] evidence that nothing ever existed on the Hudson waterfront west of the railroad tracks and south of the port.”
It’s now painfully clear that each of these official, lawyerly, patronizing assertions were at best laughably mistaken, at worst nastily misleading:
- Despite Moore’s finger-wagging, Stuart’s group proved to be not only “careful,” but also correct;
- Roberts, not CIDH, was “completely wrong” in her legal assessment;
- Standard Oil was south, not “north of the port” as Roberts claimed;
- A sustained barrage of evidence from O’Connor, Gossips and CIDH was required to convince a professional title searcher to admit what a host of amateur sleuths found out on their own;
- The only “serious misunderstandings” seem to be those harbored by Roberts, Whitbeck and the City’s title searcher;
- Aldermen who claim direct knowledge of activities which ceased at about the same time as the First World War are not reliable narrators.
Hudson has many unique features, among these being a rare species of elected official who, unlike the rest of the human race, lacks a natural distrust of lawyers. Renewing a skepticism which traces its lineage at least as far back as Shakespeare, once again local citizens have witnessed firsthand how possession of a law degree does not in itself guarantee the deliverance of honest, well-informed counsel.
When it comes to professionals in the pay of City Hall, the operating principle seems to be: Don’t trust us. We’re experts.