It’s cute when a young child fibs. Most kids are very bad fibbers, so there is little risk of them fooling anyone. Plus their motives are usually harmless, and their alibis often hilarious. (“Did you eat all the cookies, Billy?” —No, the goldfish did.)
Attorney Andrew Howard’s picture from his website
The same can’t be said of grown men, especially grown men being paid upwards of $150/hour out of public funds... So what’s the excuse of Andy Howard, the former County Attorney turned lawyer for the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC)?
At this week’s CEDC meeting, Howard told an obvious whopper. During Tuesday’s meeting, the topic came up once again of Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer’s request for legal confirmation that CEDC’s $1 land deal with Ginsberg’s food was aboveboard—free of any conflict of interest.
Previously, CEDC (via Howard) had declined to issue the certification Baer requested, vaguely claiming that the request was too vague.
But this time, Howard took things a step further, grossly embellishing the nature of Baer’s written inquiry. This misleading colloquy sounds a lot like an attempt to gin up fake outrage among the CEDC’s elite membership, who in the past have expressed reluctance to comply with ethics disclosure, training and oversight.
CEDC Board member Scott Wood raised the matter of the “letter from Supervisor Baer asking us to review the legality of certain issues we had done. And we had discussed it on here with our counsel, and we believed that everything we had done was legal and in conformity.”
But though Wood felt CEDC had fully responded—an opinion shared by few outside observers— he expressed surprise that another Supervisor found the response “evasive,” and wondered what they could do to clear up the matter.
That’s when Wood turned things over to Howard, who says:
You received a general request for a legal opinion that everything this Board has done has been legal and ethical standards. Not specifically with Ginsberg’s, not specifically with anything… It seemed very ambiguous and vague.
In fact, Baer’s request was hardly general, and was not aimed at “everything” CEDC had ever done. Rather, it specifically and narrowly dealt just with the Ginsberg’s land transaction.
The subject line of Baer’s August email inquiry was:
Ginsberg Land Sale
The body of the message featured a formal request for “a legal opinion from CEDC counsel and/or the County Attorney that all ethic and legal guidelines have been followed in this proposed transaction” [emphasis added].
The purpose of the request was clear to CEDC executive director Ken Flood, who spelled it out just as explicitly in an early September memo to Howard (attached here). Flood noted that CEDC “has received a formal request for a legal opinion that all ethic [sic] and legal guidelines have been followed in the proposed land transaction between CEDC and Ginsberg’s” and sought Howard’s response.
And indeed, at that time it seemed Howard understood the narrowness of the request. Two days after Flood’s memo was sent, Howard himself referenced Baer’s specific request about “the proposed land transaction between CEDC and Ginsberg’s.” While refusing to provide the assurance sought by Baer, Howard then proceeds to discuss details of that deal—and no other CEDC business.
Does that mean I start and look at each and every one of your appointments, to see if you were legally appointed? Does that mean I go to Lisa and look at every one of the legal notices, since I was appointed?
“We should be done with this!” Bartolotta is heard to exclaim on Cusano’s recording, followed by a loud sigh. (Earlier, Bartolotta said of the County’s request for reimbursement of $109,950 paid for the land that “it just makes me crazy... It’s just ridiculous!”
Wood suggests that CEDC “should take the offensive… Maybe that is a strong word… Take the initiative… Relying on counsel’s affirmation that we have been doing things correctly.”
A voice which sounds like CEDC Board member Mike Vertetis derisively says that responding further won’t “quiet the chance to run off at the lip a bit in front of the paper.”
CEDC Board member Greg Fingar chimes in that Baer and [Ancram Supervisor Art] Bassin are “both retired,” so they should be able to attend meetings. Bartolotta demands to know whether the two are up for re-election next year, echoing an insinuation from a previous meeting by CEDC President David Crawford—and Ginsberg’s project engineer—that “this is all political.”
Perhaps more illuminating than Howard’s whopper is that the rest of the CEDC Board did not utter a word of correction, though Baer’s specific request has been widely reported and commented upon in the past few months.
Last week, a poll commissioned by the Chris Gibson campaign claimed that the incumbent Republican Congressman (NY-19) holds a 26-point lead of 56%-30% over his Democratic challenger, Sean Eldridge.
Now Eldridge—possibly concerned that any impression of being hopelessly behind could suppress his base’s enthusiasm—has swiftly released his own counter-poll, claiming to show him “just” 10 points behind, 36%-46%.
Both competing campaign polls surveyed approximately 400 voters, and claimed a margin of error of about 5%. Gibson used the firm Public Opinion Strategies, while Eldridge used the equally-excitingly-named Global Strategies Group. Unlike Siena, neither of the two partisan campaigns released the “crosstabs” for their poll results, data which helps statheads to verify a poll’s methodology. Both purport to have surveyed “likely” voters, without specifying how they measured that likelihood.
Perhaps most tellingly, both polls show a large number of undecided voters: 14% in Gibson’s poll, 18% in Eldridge’s.
While Eldridge fans may take heart from the counter-poll, 10 percentage points is still a lot in the world of politics. Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by less than 4 points in 2012, yet that was considered a resounding victory. So Eldridge’s pollster using the word “just” to describe a 10-point deficit seems kind of spin-ish.
Meanwhile, Gibson fans can find comfort in an endorsement this morning from the generally centrist Poughkeepsie Journal. The “PoJo” editorial board writes:
In his four years in office, Gibson has proven to be a reasonable, responsible lawmaker, someone willing to work across the aisle, as shown by his high independent rating scored by Congressional Quarterly on key votes.... Indicative of his bipartisan approach, Gibson has worked extremely well with neighboring congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat [on the farm bill]. They also have teamed up to get the House of Representatives to approve defunding the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's outrageously detrimental "new capacity zone," which is causing electric rates to rise in our region. Gibson has been a strong fighter on behalf of Lyme patients throughout the valley, pushing for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to devote more funds to the effort and directing it to work on a better diagnostic test.
If one were to assume Eldridge’s poll is more accurate—as most Democratic partisans will assume—he still has a big mountain left to climb. Gibson would need only win less than a quarter of those undedideds (22.7% of them, to be exact) to prevail by just over 50% (46%+4.1%=50.1%). Eldridge meanwhile would have to win well more than three-quarters of undecideds to pull ahead.
By contrast, if Gibson’s numbers were assumed correct, there would be no way for Eldridge to catch up even if he captured all of the undecideds. He’d also have to cut into Gibson’s committed supporters.
So, what is the public to believe? Polling is a notoriously inexact and even biased science, and much could change between now and Election Day. (The last few weeks of a campaign is often when “oppo research,” i.e. personal smear tactics, tend to rear their ugly head.)
If one splits the difference between these results, the average of the two is roughly an 18-point lead for Gibson: 51%-33% with 16% undecided. To the extent that polls tend to narrow as one gets closer to the election, the final margin will almost surely be somewhat tighter than that.
There are plenty of reasons for residents of Hudson to feel disempowered.
Some get disempowered by their elected officials, who display few qualms about ignoring both common sense and the voices of hundreds or even thousands of residents. Recent (non-) debates on the Community Garden, a proposed Dog Park, and the long-running Waterfront controversy are good examples of how insider conversations within the City Hall echo chamber trump popular sentiment.
Others disempower themselves, for example by failing to cultivate strong candidates, and allowing beatable incumbents to run unopposed… Or, by mounting half-baked or incompetent election campaigns.
The first group of disempowered people feels slighted. The second group slights itself, along with (mostly-) well-intentioned supporters.
It’s in this context that both groups of disempowered Hudsonians have latched onto the abstruse issue of Hudson’s weighted vote as a means of reforming City politics.
Hudson is said to be one of the last of “Small City” in New York State, and maybe even the nation, to retain an antiquated and recondite scheme for weighting Common Council votes in proportion to each Alderman’s ward population. (More usually, City Councils set forth districts with equal numbers of residents to achieve a one-rep-one-vote system.)
As a result, one huge Hudson Ward—the 5th—holds nearly 40% of all votes on the Council, effectively diluting the votes of other Aldermen. When the 5th Ward’s two Aldermen vote in tandem, they can carry most votes with the help of just one of their remaining nine colleagues.
Fix the weighted vote (the disempowered now hope) and Hudson’s electoral problems will magically go away. And thus a tremendous amount of energy lately has been put into calling for either redrawing the Ward map to better make the Ward populations more balanced, or even better, hold a Charter change referendum to switch over to one-rep-one-vote.
Those in favor of keeping the existing system self-servingly counter that the last time this was tried, the referendum was defeated, albeit narrowly. This camp conveniently ignores that the proposal roughly a decade ago was paired with an unpopular proposal to double the terms of the Mayor and Council President, muddying the weighted voting question.
Without question, the City’s weighted voting system has become lopsided, and its implementation appears to be sloppy at best. But that said: Those putting so much effort into agitating against the weighted vote in Hudson are ignoring the much bigger electoral problems in Hudson:
(1) Far fewer people are voting in today’s elections than a decade ago;
(2) The Democratic Committee is a shell of its former self, with little serious effort put into cultivating full slates of solid candidates;
(3) Progressive interests are not backed by smart, well-organized and well-funded campaigns.
The root problem is a disaffected electorate which has largely given up on participating in politics. Changing Hudson’s weighted voting system is a long-term procedural headache which few voters have either the interest or the patience to follow. Few are ever going to spend the time necessary to get their minds around the Banzhaf Power Index, nor should they have to. Moreover, the weighted voting system itself does not effect the election of either the Mayor or the Council President, which are by far the two most influential elected positions in town.
Still more crucially: In a small community like Hudson, voters are far more motivated by hyper-local concerns, such as timely snow removal, getting the fetid storm drain on their corner flowing again, or fixing a huge pothole in the middle of their block, than by head-scratching referenda about the City Charter. Most voters could not even define the difference between the Charter and the Code, and nor should they really need to know that.
Instead, if the same intensity of effort that were put into direct electoral politics, problems with the weighted voting system would be minimized.
Rather than trying to explain a highly-technical Charter issue to an already uninterested electorate, effort would be better spent registering people to vote who are not already on the rolls. With voter participation down by about 35% over the past decade, registering just one voter per day between now and the next Citywide election in 2015 would make all the difference.
Instead of diverting energy into a long, complicated procedural argument, those seeking empowerment would do better to engage in direct, grassroots organizing. Start by creating a database of existing voters, identifying existing supporters, and drawing up lists of unregistered friends and neighbors to get on the voter rolls. Spend the next 3-5 months developing a strong slate of candidates. And then start early going door-to-door to present voters with palpable, real-world reasons to elect that slate.
Elect a better Mayor. Elect a better Council President. Challenge incumbents who have become more responsive to inside City Hall baseball than to the needs of the City. Or at least, focus on finally winning one of the two 5th Ward seats. Find a great candidate for 5th Ward alderman, and put everything into getting that person elected.
Such a victory alone would neutralize the weighted vote issue by dividing the 5th Ward’s lopsided vote in half, thus empowering the remaining members of the Council.
And then there might even be enough votes to fix the weighted voting system.
In an email circulated to his Board colleagues last week, Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin called for the resignation of David Crawford, President of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC).
Crawford’s engineering and planning firm, Crawford & Associates, is handling permitting and engineering work for Ginsberg’s Foods’ proposal for a 300,000-square-foot facility in Ghent and Claverack, which has received substantial financial and marketing support from CEDC.
David Ginsberg preceded Crawford as President of CEDC, remaining on its Board (according to its minutes) until October 2013, well after the agency had decided to apply for $1.5 million in funding for the Ginsberg project. Ginsberg’s Food also has had a $400,000, 1%-interest loan from CEDC; the loans term overlapped the tenures of both Ginsberg and Crawford. Finally, CEDC has come under fire for voting to give 33 acres of land to Ginsberg’s for just $1.
Bassin’s email calling for Crawford’s resignation treats the controversy about the Ginsberg’s project as mostly a perception problem needing a cosmetic fix, writing that
The negative reactions to the Ginsberg project seem to be related to the apparent conflicts of interest associated with Mr. Ginsberg’s past role on the CEDC board, and Mr. Crawford's current role as both chair of the CEDC Board and president of the engineering firm advising Mr. Ginsberg on the project.
In this context, the proposal from CEDC to sell the 33 acres for $1 and the 1% $400,000 loan made years ago to Ginsberg's has triggered ethics and legal concerns, and has exposed the project to additional scrutiny.
Chairman Grattan’s letter suggesting CEDC repay the County for the $114,000 County cost of the 33 acres, and his decision to chair a special committee to review the relationship between the County and CEDC, are steps in the right direction, but do not go far enough to clear the air surrounding this project.
While CEDC Executive Director Ken Flood has claimed that Crawford stayed out of all votes and discussions about the Ginsberg’s project, the agency’s minutes suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, CEDC has rebuffed a written request from Hilldale Supervisor Art Baer that CEDC provide a legal opinion verifying that the $1 transaction meets ethical muster.
In addition to having Crawford resign, Bassin proposes two additional steps:
CEDC responds to Supervisor Bear’s [sic—Baer] request for an opinion letter stating the proposed sale of the 33 acres for $1 is consistent with NYS legal and ethical standards, and the ethical standards of the CEDC.
CEDC requests Mr. Ginsberg to pay the full fair market value of the 33 acres.
Opposition to the land deal and concern about an additional $660,000 property tax break pending before the County Industrial Development Agency has spread from neighbors, taxpayers, citizens organizations and independent news sites to the editorial boards of both of the County’s print newspapers, The Register-Star and Columbia Paper.
Opposition has also come from two neighboring farms, whose owners have apparently filed an Article 78 against the Ghent and Claverack Planning Boards.
As the issue has heated up, BOS chair Pat Grattan has called for the company to reimburse the County for its land purchase at the 1997 price of $109,950 (plus related costs), which would amount to only 40% of the land’s current appraised and assessed values. Another recent applicant to CEDC, a local farm, was required to borrow $50,000 for a piece of land nearly six times smaller than the Ginsberg’s plot, and pay 10% interest on the loan.
Members of the Ginsberg clan have told this site and other sources that they do not intend to pay for the land, harrumphing that opposition to the project will not diminish even if they do.
The Columbia County Board of Supervisors does not directly control CEDC. But several Supervisors serve as trustees, and the bulk of its funding comes from the County.
Hank Gross is reporting that a poll commissioned by Chris Gibson’s campaign has the incumbent Congressman leading challenger Sean Eldridge 56%-30%, leaving 14% undecided.
Generally, polls conducted on behalf of candidates tend to be less objective than independent surveys. The result is, however, in line with a September poll by Siena College, which pegged Gibson’s lead at 24%. If accurate, this would mean that some six weeks of heavy advertising has not measurably moved the needle for either candidate.
Voters who are still undecided this late in a campaign are more likely to either stay home or lean toward the challenger, since they still haven't been convinced to support the better-known incumbent. But even if Eldridge picks up most of the undecideds, that would leave him some 15-20 points behind.
“Developers and other businesses generally say that they want predictability in the regulatory environment so they know what to do, and that time is money so project delays are one of the worst things for them. In the real estate world, using a strategic approach that can get a project to approvals and construction more quickly would seem to be a big advantage.
“Why is it so rare that a developer studies what might work from a community’s perspective and tries to come in with a project proposal that is likely to have more support? If I were in this business, I would try to do my research, perhaps have several ideas in mind, perhaps present one or two concepts, and listen to what the community thinks to shape something that could move to approvals more quickly.”
A shakeup is reportedly brewing which may alter the leadership of some or all of Columbia County’s various development agencies.
In 2010, when David Ginsberg was still President of the Columbia County Development Corporation (CEDC), Kenneth J. Flood was hired to wear three hats: Executive Director of CEDC, Executive Director of the Columbia County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), and Commissioner of the County’s Planning and Economic Development.
Four years later, multiple sources now claim that Flood is likely to lose at least two of those titles.
Several versions of this leadership upheaveal predict that Flood will be out entirely. According to another, Flood will retain his Commissioner’s position, but the overlapping roles of CEDC and IDA director will be handed to someone new—new, at least, for Columbia County.
Sandy Mathes (SOURCE: nysenate.gov)
The reported frontrunner for the position is former Greene County IDA chief Alexander (“Sandy”) Mathes, who also in the late 1990s was the Republican majority leader in the Greene County Legislature.
After moving over to the agency in 2002, Mathes left the IDA in 2011 under something of a cloud. At the time of his abrupt departure, The Watershed Post reported
If you know the history of Mathes' tenure at the IDA, however, it's not hard to guess why he’s out.
When the scandal broke last year, Mathes told the Daily Mail that the only reason he stuck around in Greene County was because of the super-sized bonuses.
While some news outlets reported that Mathes resigned, others (such as The Albany Business Review) said that the Greene County IDA “terminated” his contract due to the controversy over allegedly unearned bonuses. According to The Kingston Daily Freeman, Catskills Legislator Karen Deyo “said the issue of Mathes' bonuses was most recently raised by lawmakers following committee meetings on Aug. 9, and led to a shouting match.”
report also found that Mathes’ salary, which jumped from $75,000 when he was hired in 2002 to $130,285 last year, has risen without proper board approvals. In fact, the report found that Mathes' salary is in the top 5 percent of all IDA directors in the state, comparable with those in more urban areas such as Westchester and Nassau counties.
A scathing 2009 investigation by New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli likewise did not look favorably on the performance of the Greene County IDA during this period. The Watershed Post again succinctly summarized the situation:
DiNapoli’s report shows that while Greene County’s IDA gives out the largest number of net tax exemptions in the state after New York City’s IDA, those exemptions, which amount of 25% of the county's tax levy, did diddly squat for job creation between 2002 and 2009. [The report found that] ‘in several of the counties with relatively large tax exemptions compared to total levy, there were job losses between 2002 and 2009 – including Greene County.’”
More recently, Mathes was hired as a consultant to Otsego County’s IDA at the beginning of this year. According to the official page of State Senator James Seward, Mathes was hired to “facilitate the preparation of a strategic economic development action plan which will include greenfield site preparation, re-development opportunities, and the re-use of vacant buildings.”
According to a source who closely tracks preservation issues, Mathes sought to set up a novel program while at the Greene County IDA to identify neglected or underused historic properties which wcould be eligible for grants—dubbed “preservation-ready,” a play on the more familiar industry phrase of “shovel-ready.” He is credited with attracting the Serta Mattress facility in Greene County, and (per the T-U) helping to convert the Steifel facility in Durham to “a toothpaste factory.”
Mathes also was a booster for a proposed $110 million “indoor water park complex” in New Baltimore which evidently has not come to pass. Greene County also lost the once-thriving Friar Tuck Resort during this period.
Said by some to be the highest-paid Columbia County employee, Flood has been under fire for a series of missteps, including several high-profile projects which have failed despite County support (such as Phoenix Hudson and Local Ocean) as well as for the handling of the proposed County Airport and Ginsberg expansions.
Other names bandied about as possible successors to Flood—if indeed there will be a succession—include CEDC microenterprise loan doyenne Martha Lane, CEDC publicity maven Carol Wilbur, former CEDC deputy director Todd Erling, Columbia County Chamber chief David Colby, Pattison Koskey principal Mike Bucci, among others.
If there is any truth to the Mathes rumor, it would extend the curious phenomenon of many prominent Columbia development officials living outside the County.
Food company has the largest of 50 agency loans—and pays the lowest interest rate
The picture of the extraordinary package of public assistance which Ginsberg’s Foods has garnered over the years keeps getting larger.
In addition to more than $2 million in new government incentives to expand, and a previous PILOT tax deal about to expire, the company is now in the final year of a $400,000 loan from Columbia Economic Development Corporation.
According to a CEDC loan table obtained by this site, that amount is the largest of 50 current loans to area businesses by the agency.
Ginsberg’s 1% interest rate also stands out as the lowest paid by any of the 50 current loanees listed on the chart, dated 30 September 2014. By contrast, more than half of the other loan recipients are paying between 7% and 8.5% interest. Only 5 of the 50 recipients pay less than 5% interest, with none paying less than 2% other than Ginsberg’s.
As noted here previously, the Albany Business Review pegged Ginsberg’s revenues at $142,000,000 in 2013, suggesting that there was no urgent need to charge the company much less interest than other recipients.
Moreover, half of CEDC’s other current loans are for $25,000 or less. The next largest loan after the $400,000 for Ginsberg’s is $284,000 to a Livingston dairy operation. The third largest is $150,000 to a food business in Ancramdale. Those businesses are paying 5% and 6% interest, respectively.
The 10-year term of the Ginsberg’s loan is also tied for second longest on the table. One other distribution business has a 15-year loan for $100,000. Three other businesses have a 10-year loan. More than three-quarters of the loanees have terms of 6 years or less.
The loan was initiated in 2005, and appears to partially overlap with the tenure of David Ginsberg as President of CEDC. Ginsberg stepped down from that post in 2010, but remained on the board of CEDC until shortly before the State approved a $1.5 million assistance package in late 2013.
The grant application and permitting for the project was initiated while Ginsberg was still serving on CEDC, along with the head of the engineering firm for the company’s expansion project in Ghent and Claverack.
The company has also requested a second Payment in Lieu of Tax plan from the County IDA. According to a report in The Register-Star, that new PILOT would save Ginsberg’s some $700,000 in local taxes, for example to the Taconic Hills School District. It is not known how much the previous PILOT netted the company in savings.
Both CEDC and the IDA share Ken Flood as their executive director. Flood was hired to fill those roles, as well as director of Columbia County Planning, when Ginsberg was still head of CEDC
According to an article last March in The Albany Business Review, Ginsberg’s Foods Inc. had $142,000,000 in “Capital Region revenue in 2013.” (The article does not indicate if the company had additional revenue from other areas.) As a point of comparison, the Saratoga Casino and Raceway had revenue that year of $185 million.
This begs the obvious question: Why does a business with that much cash pouring in need to get free land and tax breaks from Columbia County, plus $1.5 million in additional grants and tax incentives from the State?