A statement by Hudson City Democratic Committee chair Victor Mendolia in today’s Register-Star, on the topic of Rick Scalera and political signage, is demonstrably untrue.
The City has a longstanding but patently unenforceable local ordinance on the books. That local law unconstitutionally attempts to limit the number of days before an election that political signs can be displayed. But courts have repeatedly struck down such laws (typically, on the basis that political and commercial speech cannot be treated differently).
Nevertheless, in the 2005 local election then-Police Commissioner Carmine Pierro—with the backing of then-Mayor Rick Scalera—attempted to have signs removed for certain candidates the pair did not support.
A June 24th, 2005 article in The Register-Star reported that
Some Democrats are jumping the gun on this year's political season, Mayor Richard Scalera told the Common Council Tuesday. Signs have been popping up around town endorsing Richard Tracy for mayor and Robert O'Brien for Common Council president. Scalera, who has endorsed Republican Daniel J. Grandinetti for mayor, said these are illegal because political signs are not supposed to go up before 40 days prior to the election.
At the meeting where this was first discussed, this writer pointed out the obvious unenforceability of the local law, citing specific cases around the country where similar statutes had been struck down. Again, from the Register-Star:
Democratic Committeeman Sam Pratt said this is an unconstitutional restriction, and he added that the law is contradictory because it completely prohibits campaign signs at any time in residential zones. …
“These laws are unconstitutional,” Pratt said Thursday. “Most thoughtful local governments have taken them off the books by now. It's an embarrassment to Hudson that we have such a law, because it's both unenforceable and illegal.”
Pratt referred to three municipalities in which 60-day time limits were struck down by courts: Antioch, Calif., Van, Ore. and Tacoma, Wash.; and one municipality in which a 45-day time limit was struck down, Prince George's County, Md.
In addition, Pratt said, in a case involving the city of San Diego, the U.S. Supreme Court found that commercial speech can't be favored over political speech — in other words, if residents can put realtors’ and electricians’ signs in their front yards, they can also put politicians’ signs there.” …
Pratt raised the issue of conflict of interest.
“If Police Commissioner Cappy Pierro, who's heavily involved in a campaign, makes any move on this, it would clearly be selective enforcement and an abuse of power," he said. Pratt said there were Bush and Kerry signs up months before the November 2004 election. ...
“If Dan Grandinetti, Rick Scalera and Cappy Pierro want to bully the people out of exercising their most fundamental American rights, and to abuse the police power and misuse the Hudson Police Department to intimidate citizens, they'll have the fight of their lives on their hands,” Pratt said. “I would fight it to the Supreme Court, because I know it's a winnable fight.”
Scalera, however, didn’t back down—at least, not until he was left with little other choice.
Instead, Scalera falsely claimed that the sign law was in the City Charter, then brazenly challenged residents to take the City to court if they didn’t like it. The then-Mayor thundered that people better be prepared to “be summoned, go before the judge and let him make the determination.”
Rick Scalera, c. 2003
However, citizens made enough of a stink that by the end of June the City had received a stiff reminder from the New York Civil Liberties Union about the unconstitutionality of the Hudson law in question—and making it plain that they would be prepared to assist anyone wrongly charged under it.
This writer received a call from then-Hudson Police chief Ellis Richardson, who gave his personal assurance that he had absolutely no intention of taking any action on the matter, despite the belligerent noises emanating from City Hall.
In a follow-up article on June 30th, 2005, Scalera blasted the communication, blunderingly attributing it to “the same ACLU that condones and agrees with the fact that flags can be burnt on American soil as an expression of freedom of speech.” (It was the NYCLU.)
Faced with Richardson’s position, and then-City Attorney Jack Connor temporizing about having to “look into” the matter before any citations could be issued, and a rare Register-Star editorial opposing their stance, Scalera and Pierro were forced to finally drop the matter like a hot potato, hoping it would not become an election liability. (Their preferred candidate lost the Mayoral race in November.)
In short, Scalera and his political faction were squarely on the wrong side of the sign fracas. If the ordinance was not enforced after that, it was due to citizens standing on their hind legs, and calling out the City for bullying.
Nevertheless, in this Wednesday’s Reg-Star, the paper reported a historical claim by Mendolia that “former Mayor Rick Scalera refused to enforce the law at all because he felt it was unconstitutional regarding freedom of speech.”
As seen above, Scalera didn’t “refuse” to enforce the law; he attempted to use it to remove opposition signs. And he did not “feel it was unconstitutional,” he scoffed at the NYCLU’s authoritative demonstration of its unconstituionality. (Note: Mendolia controversially endorsed Scalera in the 2009 election.)
At the time, The Register-Star “Our View” editorial opined:
We are in agreement with the New York Civil Liberties Union that Hudson's political sign ordinance violates the free speech provisions in both the state and federal constitutions.
In a letter written to city Legal Adviser Jack Connor, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Melanie Trimble wrote: “A political yard sign is a classic example of the core political speech that is at the heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to free expression. But, for the vast majority of the year, the [city] of Hudson has completely and inappropriately, foreclosed a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, Trimble noted that “the overwhelming majority of courts that have reviewed sign ordinances imposing durational limits for temporary political signs tied to a specific election date have found them to be unconstitutional.”
Yes, Hudson's ordinance should definitely be repealed.
That was more than 9 years and at least one Code Revision ago. Nevertheless, the Hudson Common Council still has not gotten around to repealing the law.
Out of six members, only one (James Mackerer) bothered to show up for their own meeting, ostensibly held to hear the views of the public. Chair Bruce Bohnsack, vice chair Sid Richter, Secretary-Treasuer Don Kline, plus Board members Robert Galluscio and Robert Stickles were all missing.
Instead, the Board was represented by attorney Ted Guterman (who ran the meeting) and IDA Executive Director Ken Flood, who was almost entirely silent... But who spent much of the hearing making long faces and rolling his eyes along with Mr. Brusie, who was seated across from him in the front row.
After this glaring absence was pointed out, Guterman tried to reassure the audience that the missing board members would be provided transcripts. This did not seem to mollify the audience, as anyone who has ever attended such hearings understands that reading a transcript is no substitute for attendance. One misses not only the nuances of each speaker’s presentation, but also the audience reactions, side comments, etc.
The audience also noted another absence at the meeting: David and Nancy Ginsberg.
Ginsberg’s VP John Brusie appears third from right, alongside his mother Nancy Fuller Ginsberg and David Ginsberg, at center.
Ginsberg’s Foods Vice President of Operations John Brusie was observed snapping photographs of residents speaking in opposition to the company’s Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILOT) application to the Columbia County IDA.
Ghent resident Jefferson Snider was the first to mention out loud what many others in the audience had noticed during the Wednesday public hearing: That Brusie, the son of Ginsberg’s co-owner Nancy Fuller Ginsberg, was using a gold-cased cameraphone to take pictures of various speakers.
Toward the end of the hearing, Snider specifically questioned why this was being done, after which Brusie appeared to stop taking the photos. (After that point, however, pretty much all the remaining commenters had already spoken earlier as well, and thus had already had their pictures taken.)
Brusie did not explain the purpose of the photographs, but participants gathered afterward agreed that the action came across as a possible attempt to intimidate speakers.
Patti Matheney of GhentCANN dropped a bombshell at this morning's public hearing about the Ginsberg Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILOT) plan.
County officials have repeatedly left the impression that the 33 acres being sold to Ginsberg's Foods for $- was “inherited” by the county. As a result, press reports (such as an editorial questioning the deal in the Register-Star) dutifully repeated this language, giving the sense that there hadn't been much if any cost associated with the land acquisition.
But public records obtained by Matheney, Christine Jones and close neighbors of the proposed facility tell a very different story.
In fact, the County’s development arm paid $109,950 in 1997 to acquire the acreage from the Ribley estate.
Confronted with this evidence, as well as the presence of a surviving Ribley family member, County economic czar Ken Flood claimed that he had always known that the Columbia Economic Development Corporation had paid that price. If others had reported differently, he argued, they must have misquoted him.
But nowhere in minutes of the CEDC’s recent meetings, nor in published reports, does the $110,000 number crop up. Indeed, given the heat that Flood and the agency has taken for the $1 sale, the County has had every reason to fudge its descriptions of the acquisition.
The Register-Star stated on August 2nd that the land had been “inherited.” If Flood or anyone else in County government objected to that description, it doesn’t appear they bothered to ask the paper for a correction, because the Register used the same word again on August 26. Meanwhile, Hudson 1st Ward Supervisor Sarah Sterling stated at the public hearing that though she was on the CEDC board, had attended all of its recent meetings, and actually voted for the land transfer, she had never heard about the $110,000 price tag.
Muddy language like “inherited” has misled people into assuming that no cash was involved in the original purchase, making the $1 sale seem less outrageous. The Ribley’s spokesperson politely but firmly described the County’s prior statements as “falsehoods.”
Ghent resident Jeff Snider, quipped that he’d be willing to buy the land instead for $100.
Apparent conflicts of interest raise eyebrows even among supporters
The maneuvers and machinations behind the Ginsberg’s Foods deal—resulting in some $2 million in public fundings and tax credits—strike many local observers as irregular at best.
Ginsberg family members and employees have touted the company’s longevity, local roots and continued “investment in the community” as reasons for the company to benefit from substantial County largesse and indulgence from town permitting agencies.
To a large extent, both have rolled over and given Ginsberg’s everything they’ve asked for, from public handouts to multiple zoning variances.
But while development officials have voiced a shining appreciation for the employment provided by Ginsberg’s, such testimonials seem tarnished by a growing sense that inside government influence has been used to achieve a private company’s expansion goals.
Below is an inventory of some of the more dubious ways in which this deal has been advanced. Taken together, these raise the questions: Why should a highly successful company, with a massive cashflow and presumably healthy profits, need the public to underwrite its expansion? And: Is it really appropriate for County agency board members with close ties to Ginsberg’s to be going to bat on its behalf?
(1) Ken’s Conflict. The main public booster of Ginsberg’s expansion has been County economic development czar Kenneth J. Flood. But Flood appears to owe a significant professional debt of gratitude to the top dog at Ginsberg’s.
According to sources familiar with the search to fill the job eventually landed by Flood, that search was led by none other David Ginsberg himself. At the time of Flood’s appointment, Ginsberg was the President of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, and apparently was responsible for both the interviewing and the ultimate selection of candidates.
If true, Flood would not only would appear to be helping out the guy who hired him, but is heading an agency with direct financial dealings with that person’s firm. Audits of the IDA, conducted by the politically-connected accounting firm of Pattison Koskey Howe & Bucci, show G’s Best Realty listed under the agency’s Projects, Exemptions and Payment in Lieu of Tax programs. G’s Best Realty is understood to be a real estate holding company for Ginsberg’s Foods, sharing the same address (Box 17 Route 66, Hudson NY 12534) and appearing on some of its applications.
(2) David’s Dual Role. About a year after hiring Flood, Ginsberg relinquished the Presidency of CEDC in the Spring of 2010. But he remained on the CEDC board for several more years. It appears the company’s expansion plans were not only well known, but also actively advocated by the agency, well before Ginsberg finally stepped down entirely from that board.
Flood told the Register-Starin July 2013 that “the company has expressed interest in potential assistance from the Columbia County Industrial Development Agency and Columbia Economic Development Corporation”—two of the three agencies Flood had been hired to direct.
Indeed, there is evidence that Flood knew of Ginsberg’s plans even earlier than that. The minutes of CEDC’s June 18th, 2013 meeting note that Consolidated Funding Applications (CFAs) to the State were due by August 12th. Flood states in the minutes that several CFAs would be submitted, including the “Ginsberg’s expansion.”
No specific company or Board Member was specified. But David Ginsberg resigned from the board shortly thereafter, sometime between CEDC’s September and October meetings—and just before the State approved a package of more than $1.5 million in tax credits and funding for Ginsberg’s in late November. In the December press release, Flood praises Ginsberg’s Foods without acknowledging any prior relationship or obligation to the former president of CEDC.
(3) Crawford’s Connections. Succeeding Ginsberg as CEDC President was another David—David Crawford, the head honcho of the Hudson-based engineering and planning firm Crawford & Associates.
Crawford’s firm has represented Ginsberg’s efforts to obtain permits before the various Claverack and Ghent boards reviewing its expansion plans, even as CEDC has gone to bat for the company. The abovementioned $1.5 million funding applications appear to have been submitted during Crawford’s (ongoing) tenure as President of CEDC.
Crawford has also used his role as CEDC boss to speak up for his client’s interests in more purely symbolic ways. At its the same May board meeting, “Mr. Crawford stated it was appropriate for the Board to honor Mr. Ginsberg” and “presented Mr. Ginsberg with a trophy as a token of thanks.” The minutes do not disclose what the trophy cost, or what shape it took. (A cornucopia, maybe?)
(The main Crawford & Associates spokesperson at meetings about the project has been Brandee Nelson, who has elsewhere been rumored to be the odds-on “favorite” to unseat County Department of Public Works honcho David Robinson.)
(4) Spinning Ginsberg’s. Meanwhile, Crawford recently pushed for a public relations firm to be hired to help get its message out, including “the message about Ginsberg’s”—again, his client.
According to the May 2014 CEDC minutes, a motion was passed to seek “a proposal from Behan Communications.” Behan is in turn connected with Crawford Associates and at least one other CEDC board member, attorney Bill Better. Both Crawford and Better have performed high-profile work for TCI of NY, the former Ghent PCB processor whose Falls Road facility infamously exploded several summers ago, causing a widespread lockdown and the installation of an emergency notification system.
Despite the Board only approving the solicitation of a “proposal” from Behan, at the next month’s meeting Flood revealed that he had already started working with Behan.
This revelation caused board member Tony Jones, former publisher of The Independent, to express his “confusion,” goven that “only a proposal and not a contract had been authorized by the board vote.” Crawford jumped in that “Behan could use Ginsberg’s as a CEDC accomplishment” to help burnish the misunderstood agency’s image. (Once again: Ginsberg is Crawford’s client, and both Crawford and Better rubbed elbows with Behan while they all worked for TCI.)
Despite the evident consternation among several more independent CEDC members, at the following meeting Mr. Crawford announced that “Behan had been hired.”
Minutes of the August meeting have not been published yet online, but attendees report that Crawford and Flood have already gone ahead with spending $4,000 of a potential $10,000 retainer with Behan, though the CEDC board still had not authorized the hiring of any P.R. firm... It is not clear if Behan had a hand in placing the recent, fawning profile of David Ginsberg in the Register-Star.
(5) Land Grab. Another tasty morsel in the Ginsberg Goodie Bag is the County’s plan to “sell” them 33 acres of developable, vacant farmland along Route 66 for the princely sum of $1. Ken Flood told the media that “we had an appraisal done two months ago, and the appraised value is $280,000.” A public hearing on the gift is scheduled for today (Wednesday) at 10 am at the West Ghent Fire House on Route 9H near Kozel’s.
But other land owned by CEDC is hardly given away for a sawbuck. For example, at its May 2014 meeting, the Board approved the sale of 5.8 acres—about half of it wetland—to Tierra Farm. The price? $50,000, loaned at the extravagant rate of 10% interest for 5 years. The company promised to create 25 new jobs, roughly half of Ginsberg’s estimate.
So why was Tierra Farm required to pay $50,000 and 10% interest, while Ginsberg paid $1 and got $1.5 million in credits and grant funding? The minutes do not say. Flood has spun the giveaway by saying that his agency heard of no interest in the land after years of it sitting empty. But this appears to be more a reflection on CEDC and the IDA’s inept-to-nonexistent marketing efforts than on its real worth.
(6) Corporate Blackmail? In spite of his longtime official role as a booster of Columbia County development, David Ginsberg has made a point of threatening to move his company elsewhere, if the County does not support its expansion with funding.
Before State funding was obtained, rumors ran rampant (spread by whom?) that Ginsberg’s was mulling the idea of moving to Rensselaer or Berkshire counties. Even recently, as Ginsberg’s has racked up benefits and approvals, Ginsberg told the Register-Star:
“(People) offered to sit down and talk to me about the incentives about going somewhere else,... It’s not like I need to be here. I could be 25 miles in any direction and continue the same business model I presently have.”
(7) The $220,000,000 question. So is it worth it to spend about $2 million? That same Reg-Star article noted that “nearly 60 percent of the company’s approximately 260 employees are current Columbia County residents, he added, with the proposed expansion yielding anywhere from 50 to 75 new jobs.”
That would indicate that Ginsberg’s currently employees approximately 156 local residents, with the number climbing to something like 200 in Columbia County if the expansion goes through.
This means that Ginsberg’s provides less than 1% of the employment in the county. If every local business were to receive grants and tax credits in the same proportion to Ginsberg’s based on the number of jobs each provides, the County and State would have to pony up more than $220,000,000.
* * * * *
At the end of the day, even those who might hope to keep Ginsberg’s Foods locally have to wonder: Why all the handouts to a huge business which is said to have revenues in the tens of millions? Can't Ginsberg’s afford to pay its own way?
After 100+ years, doesn’t Ginsberg’s have the assets and credit to get a low-interest loan of its own, without reaching into the pockets of State or County taxpayers? Why should a small farm pay $50,000 and 10% interest on 6 acres, while Ginsberg’s gets 33 acres for a measly dollar?
When even the conservative-coddling Register-Star blasts the deal, it’s a sign that County insiders may finally have gone too far. The Register wrote that “most [residents] will not benefit from Ginsberg's multi-million dollar investment,” and that the handling of the land deal and PILOT leave an “impression that the deal with Ginsberg's is not above board.”
Less than 10% of Democrats, both statewide and in Columbia County, participated in today’s gubernatorial primary (in which Governor Andrew Cuomo defeated challenger Zephyr Teachout by a roughly 2-1 margin).
As such, tonight’s primary results tells us little about the views of Democratic voters. But it does demonstrate that Democratic officials and party operatives, whether progressive or centrist, are not able to motivate its rank-and-file members to vote.
Today is primary day, so of course the Columbia County Board of Elections’ database went down this morning... Should make for a fun afternoon. Polls are open from noon to 9 pm. If you have voting questions, call the Board at 828-3115.