NOON UPDATE: According to GhentCANN’s Patti Matheney, Crawford did indeed resign this morning. (GOP chair Greg Fingar presented him with a bottle of gin as a farewell gift.) Retired realtor Mary Bartolotta, who has been outspoken about her distaste for the State investigation which prompted Crawford’s resignation, will serve as President for the next month as CEDC decides on next steps. Consultant Mike Tucker’s $6,000-per-month contract as temporary director was approved, taking on the role previously filled by Ken Flood, who remains in his County Planning/Development post for now.
According to a well-placed source, CEDC President David Crawford intends to resign at this morning’s meeting of the agency’s embattled board.
David Crawford with fellow CEDC Board member and GOP chair Greg Fingar (source: Crawford & Associates blog)
Crawford’s failure to disclose an obvious conflict of interest, while participation in CEDC decisions regarding his client, Ginsberg’s Foods, were highlighted in the recent State Authorities Budget Office investigation. The report was prompted by a complaint from citizen watchdogs GhentCANN.
Meanwhile, the five members (which includes Crawford) of CEDC’s new management committee have reportedly been meeting in private, without publicly noticing their meetings or posting minutes documenting them.
Failure to comply with Open Government regulations was one of the topics of the much-discussed State investigation of the agency.
According to New York State law, a public “meeting” is defined as “the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business.” A “public body” consists “of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation...”
Since the management committee is conducting business for a public authority, and more than two members are present, its proceedings require public notice.
The ABO report noted regarding CEDC’s committees (prior to the formation of the new management group) that
Committees and subcommittees established by public bodies are also subject to Open Meetings Law. CEDC has established two committees, its Executive Committee and a Loan Committee that reviews loans recommended by CEDC staff and determines if such loans will be recommended for board approval. However, CEDC does not provide public notice of these committee meetings or allow public access to these meetings. The CEDC does not maintain meeting minutes for its Loan Committee. CEDC also did not maintain meeting minutes for all of its Executive Committee meetings in 2014. Of the nine meetings held, minutes were taken only for six of those meetings, and none of these meeting minutes are posted on the CEDC website. [Emphases added.]
So though the State chastised CEDC for failing to provide notice, allow public access, and maintain publicly-accessible minutes of its decisions for its two existing committees, the agency appears to not only have formed a third committee, but to be actively thumbing its nose at the State’s findings. No such notices or minutes currently appear at the agency’s website.
The long-vacant commercial property at the corner of 23 and 9H (once an outpost of the Video Cave, way back when people used dollar bills to borrow tapes of movies), has been under construction lately—fueling much speculation about what was coming next.
At one point, a complex of shops was going to be built there, and then later plans were floated for a pizza place. With the Claverack Market still empty, people who pass through this intersection frequently have hoped for something fun, different, or at least useful.
Now the word from someone working at the site this week is that it will be a Subway. (Guess it could be worse... Could be another gas station. Or a Long John Silver’s.)
Despite having no signed contract with the Columbia Economic Development Council (CEDC) for the past 18 months, Columbia County has until very recently been sending CEDC some $115,000 every quarter.
Board of Supervisors chair Patrick Grattan
The news raises doubts about whether County officials neglected to exercise due diligence, basic oversight, and fiscal responsibility for funding totaling $437,000-$460,000 per year.
Funding allocations were approved each year by the Supervisors, but apparently contracts dictating the terms of their largesse stopped being signed. The County last had a contract with CEDC in 2013, according to documents obtained by this site, which can be downloaded [ HERE] and [ HERE ].
In an email to colleagues this week, Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin characterized the situation as “sloppy management,” and that “common sense says you don't pay without a contract.” While waiting to find out whether the County “broke any rules, regs or laws by paying them without a valid contract in place,” Bassin questioned the potential legality of the (non-) arrangement:
“Arguably the payments we made in 2014 and 1Q 2015 are unauthorized and maybe even illegal...so it would be inappropriate to pay them for the 2Q until we resolve the contract matter... [W]hat are the legal implications of having paid CEDC for 5 quarters without having BOS approval via a valid contract?”
Bassin also noted that “As of last month's [Economic Development] Committee meeting, Ken Flood did not know whether or not Pat & CEDC had executed a contract covering the $500,000 of County support.” Flood is currently the County’s Planning and Development Commissioner, but has been let go from his Executive Director position at CEDC, without consultation with the County.
Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer confirmed via email that “we do not have a contract [with] CEDC.” At the most recent Board of Supervisors meeting, County attorney Rob Fitzsimmons, who said at the last full BOS meeting that there is “no written contract” with CEDC, has also written that the 2014 contract was never signed. A marked-up, revised 2015 contract, stipulating a slightly lower payment of $109,250 quarterly, remains in limbo, per Fitzsimmons:
“I know Pat was going to review / discuss at a special County CEDC committee meeting, but don't think that occurred. I checked with Ken on the 2014, and that was not executed. ”
At least the County’s 2nd Quarter 2015 payment has apparently been held—not at the County’s initiative, it would seem, but due to a request by CEDC President David Crawford to hold back while the troubled development agency attempts to steady its listing ship.
Curiously, though, minutes of the recent CEDC board retreat held at Columbia-Greene Community College appear to refer to an ongoing arrangement. In a discussion about proposed changes to how the agency is funded, a footnote on p. 8 of those minutes states that
“the actual wording of the Contract between CEDC and Columbia County is very similar to this wording.”
Some limited debate occurred at a recent County economic development committee meeting to find out about the status of the contracts, with Bassin being charged with looking into it. Since that meeting, Committee chair John Reilly has suggested in email that the County may still have an “oral” or “implied” contract with CEDC.
Reilly and Baer have been charged by the County with conducting an investigation into CEDC’s loans over the past five years. Allegations have arisen that while Baer remains keen to start digging, Reilly is dragging his heels—a charge he denies.
Baer had proposed instead that an independent investigator be appointed, and $10,000 allocated, so that any findings were not perceived to be political. That proposal was shot down by the full Board of Supervisors, with many recusing themselves, largely due to claimed budget concerns. (Though $10,000 to get to the bottom of a brewing scandal was deemed too much, apparently sending CEDC $115,000 quarterly without a written contract was fine.)
Hudson 3rd Ward Supervisor Ellen Thurston surprisingly has argued for paying CEDC its 2nd quarter monies anyway, and not “necessarily interfer[ing] in the internal management decisions of this nonprofit organization”—despite the County being essentially CEDC’s only means of making payroll. Moreover, the 2013 contract was for CEDC to provide "support services” to the County, and “administrative support” to the County’s Planning/Development Commissioner, tying the two even closer together. CEDC was acting as an “independent contractor” to the County, according to the contract’s language.
The status of any contract could have both an investigatory and a financial impact. In a blustering and typo-ridden letter to the Supervisors, CEDC attorney Andrew Howard questioned the County’s legal right to seek information on how it has spent these monies. Several Supervisors have pointed out what citizens have also said: As the principle funder of CEDC, the County certainly has the right to deny funding if its contractor refuses to provide important information. (Many attendees of recent meetings have noted the unusual degree to which CEDC board members seem to view it as a private business, rather than a public authority, for example by never acknowledging the audience and denying citizens the opportunity to ask questions.)
And interestingly, the 2013 document contained provisions for either party to recover costs for actions taken to enforce its rights under the contract. So possibly that $10,000 independent investigation proposed by Baer but voted down by the BOS could’ve been done for free, with CEDC footing the bill.
The County EDC generally agreed to a draft resolution to be proposed to the Finance Committee and full board, which reads:
“That the Board of Supervisors suspend quarterly CEDC funding (including the outstanding payment of the second quarter of 2015) pending a newly executed Columbia County-CEDC contract for 2015-2016 acceptable to the BOS and negotiated through the EDC committee and county legal department and conditioned upon fulfillment (before renewed payments) of the approved BOS loan file review (a BOS document request will be attached to the Contract). Further, any proposed CEDC Restructuring Plan will also be approved by the BOS prior to the BOS-CEDC 2015-2016 Contract execution.”
However, Reilly did not bring the resolution forward as a motion, and there was no roll-call vote, so the Committee will have to have a special meeting in advance of the other two bodies to finalize language and take a formal vote.
Stockport lawyer-turned-baker Louise Roback—who has been attending many of recent CEDC and County EDC meetings—has sent the following letter to her Town supervisor and others in County Government, reacting to the news that development czar Ken Flood has been pushed out of one of his three positions.
DEAR SUPERVISOR MURRELL AND SUPERVISOR MEMBERS OF THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE:
I wish to share my comments on the “reorganization” of the CEDC announced as a result of its Board retreat yesterday.
That’s pretty terrible if the extent of the “reorganization” is to push Ken Flood out and not:
Remove the conflicted board members, hire new counsel who knows what conflicts of interest are and so instructs the board members, impose term limits on board members, and open up the organization—and its board of directors membership—to public oversight and monitoring, including pledging to fully cooperate with the review of loans to be undertaken by Supervisors Reilly and Baer.
It is atrocious that David Crawford remains on the board, the executive committee and will oversee the operations of the CEDC. Mr. Crawford should step down, as should Mr. Better and Mr. Sherwood, the Kinderhook Bank president, per the ABO findings. The Board should apologize to the County taxpayers for misappropriating public funds, years of making money for themselves and their friends at our expense. Mr. Better should return the money he made while a Board member to the taxpayers, and resign.
Mr. Crawford should not stay on the Board and have a part in administering the odoriferous Ginsberg’s public funds giveaway when he properly should not have been involved in the authorization of this boondoggle, per the ABO.
And the Board needs to answer to the Authorities Budget Office and Columbia County residents as to how it will resolve the systemic self-dealing found by the ABO. Merely looking for a new ED as announced in the press release is woefully inadequate. It is not a restructuring of the organization or the Board—whose conflicts the ABO addressed its report -- but merely superficial, and insults th public who pays for the CEDC’s operations.
If significant reorganization of the CEDC Board and operations does not occur immediately, Ihope the Board of Supervisors exercises its responsibilities and de-funds CEDC. Enough!
BOS Chairman Pat Grattan (image adapted from: GrandOldPress.com)
The public may want to bring some extra bags of popcorn to the County Board of Supervisors’ regular meeting on Wednesday at 7:30—where the ethics, transparency and other management issues dogging the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) are likely to come up.
Last month, the County’s separate economic development committee voted 5-0 to forward a resolution proposed by Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer to the full Board, calling for an independent investigation into possible conflicts of interest during CEDC’s past five years of loans and grantmaking.
Prompted by a State report on conflicts of interest related to the Ginsberg’s Food proposal, as well as violations of open government laws, the investigation (if approved) would focus on only grants of $25,000 or more.
In five days, over 270 signatures have been gathered on an online petition calling for the Ghent planning board to appeal a judge’s ruling, which forces the Town’s Planning Board to issue permit to Ginsberg’s Foods.
The petition, which also calls for reforms of the County’s economic development agencies, can be read (and if so moved, signed) at this link.
The Board is slated to meet and discuss its options tonight at 7 pm at Ghent Town Hall.
UPDATE: Attorney Louise Roback has obtained and scanned the four decisions by Judge Koweek, which can be downloaded at the following links: ONE | TWO | THREE | FOUR
According to a committeeman, last night brought two major developments for the County Democratic Party.
Longtime chair Cyndy Hall has reportedly stepped down her position as chair due to health considerations. She will for the interim be replaced by Kinderhook committeeman (and former Town Board member) Peter Bujanow.
Meanwhile, the Committee considered two candidates to endorse for County District Attorney: Gene Keeler, who held the post in the 1980s, and attorney Kenneth Golden, a Valatie resident and former Assistant D.A. under Beth Cozzolino. The Democrats have apparently given their nod to Golden, who more recently worked for the New York State Department of Labor.
A new online petition posted by GhentCann calls upon the Town’s planners to appeal this week’s ruling by Judge Richard Koweek, forcing the Planning Commission to reverse its denial of a permit to Ginsberg’s Foods.
The petition, which can be found here, can be signed by residents of both Ghent and the County, says GhentCANN’s Patti Matheney, to support “sound planning decisions in our County.” The 300,000 square-foot project also received large tax breaks from the Columbia County Industrial Development Agency.
Gallatin Supervisor John Reilly seems to want to head the Kafka Economic Development Committee. For Reilly, the chair of the County committee charged with overseeing economic planning, is now bizarrely denying what occurred in front of several dozen witnesses. Let’s review:
More than a week ago, at a meeting chaired by Reilly, it was reported by the Register-Star that:
“[C]ommittee members also voted to request a special Economic Development Committee meeting 4 p.m. June 10 to hear from Crawford, Sherwood and Better regarding the Ginsberg’s deal.”
The paper was referring to Crawford Engineering principal David Crawford, Kinderhook Bank president Bob Sherwood and attorney Bill Better—the three members of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) who were cited in a State investigation for failures to disclose conflicts of interest related to the controversial Ginsberg Foods deal.
This site observed and reported the same vote:
“Current Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin noted that the three ‘members of CEDC who are cited in the report have never come before us.’ Bassin later motioned to table Baer’s call for the three Board members’ resignations, in favor of inviting them instead to explain themselves at a future special meeting of Reilly’s committee—tentatively scheduled for June 10th.”
In the week after this site’s report appeared, neither Reilly nor any other committee member asked for a correction. Nor does it appear that any such correction was requested of the Register-Star, either. Why? Because everyone seemed to have seen the same thing.
Multiple attendees, including current and former elected officials and others present, had the same understanding of the vote. Patti Matheney of GhentCANN recalls:
“Art Bassin made a motion to ask Better, Crawford, and Sherwood to the special meeting to discuss the ABO report when Art Baer's motion for their resignations did not pass.”
In addition to the 5-0 vote in favor of Bassin’s compromise resolution, there was extensive conversation about the best date for a special meeting, given that time was of the essence. Committee members agreed to try for the 10th before the full Board of Supervisors meeting that day.
Following the vote, others in attendance spoke directly to Bassin’s motion, clearly referencing the invitation to the key CEDC members cited in the State report. As reported here:
“[Claverack resident] Ron Cardiss said that even if they were to take a ‘polygraph of Crawford and Better,’ that they’d just hear some variation on the old slogan that ‘what’s good for GM is good for America. They’re just going to say that what’s good for CEDC is good for the County.’”
In the wake of the meeting, attendees were buzzing about whether the trio would actually appear on the 10th. Would they snub the County committee? Or would they attend?
The next Tuesday morning, Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer—who had called for the three’s resignations, leading to Bassin’s compromise motion to have them come before the Committee first—wrote to Reilly:
“I would recommend you notice the special the June 10 meeting at 4:00 that the Eco. Dev. committee voted to have as soon as possible. And that Crawford, Better and Sherwood are personally invited to explain their side of the ABO Report. Would not want them to say not enough notice.“
That did not happen—quite the opposite.
Instead, the Committee’s 5-0 vote now appears to have been unilaterally dismissed by chair Reilly—who now claims things did not occur at all the way any of the above remember.
At a meeting this Tuesday of the CEDC, Reilly unexpectedly appeared in the company of County Board of Supervisors chair Pat Grattan. After Grattan sung the recently-stung agency’s praises for several minutes, Reilly (to the astonishment of multiple witnesses) then proceeded to deny that any demand or request for the appearance of Crawford, Better and Sherwood was made by his committee.
Moreover, he indicated that there would be no special meeting on the 10th.
After the meeting, one attendee told Grattan: “Reilly lied to you in there.”
This site has reached out to Reilly for an explanation and his version of events, and has had an extensive back-and-forth about what he believes transpired when his committee voted unanimously the previous week. Reilly now claims that they merely
“discussed inviting the CEDC to respond to the public comment on the ABO Report. At no time, did I, or the Committee, plan to single out or invite just the three individuals Supervisor Bear raised. The discussion was to invite the full board, including the whole Executive Committee…”
The full CEDC board has 22 members, making such an invitation impractical at best. Had that bee the subject of the 5-0 vote, someone surely would have at least suggested a larger room for the special meeting.
In an email exchange between several Supervisors which has since occurred, Reilly again denied what others recall had occurred:
“We did not discuss inviting just three individuals to the special meeting, or any meeting.”
Baer speedily contradicted Reilly’s revisionist version of events:
“[I]t was decided that the individuals who were named should have a chance to explain their part in the ABO report.”
While admitting to be fuzzy in his recollection of whether the Executive Committee or whole 22-member CEDC would also be welcome—something he discussed with Reilly after the meeting and vote—Bassin chimed in that
“My recollection was that we wanted to review the ABO report with the three individuals named in the report before voting on Art Baer's resolution to ask for their resignations…”
One thing is absolutely clear: Reilly decided on his own to nix the June 10th meeting—because he wants CEDC to have the benefit of a “retreat” first. He writes in an email to this site:
“I think they are best prepared to come to our next monthly meeting, not a special meeting the day before their annual meeting.... The CEDC has taken path to implement a whole new structure in response and not just ignore the issue as a technical oversight. If I am going to be supportive of public input, then I also have to applaud the CEDC's earnest reaction to that input.”
As noted by attendees of a meeting immediately after the ABO report came to light—an investigation which CEDC did not alert Reilly’s committee about, even when asked pointed questions—members joked about and scoffed at the State’s findings.
Reilly indicated in an email to this site only one regret: that they did not write down the actual resolution. He still insists:
“I recall and I think the minutes will attest that we actually set up the meeting to invite all CEDC Board and the executive Committee.”
So what are the status of those minutes? According to a source who spoke with the minute-keeper, she did not record the proceedings on tape. A draft has, however, been prepared. Prior to circulation to the entire committee, her minutes are submitted for editing by… Supervisor Reilly.
To paraphrase comedian Richard Pryor: Who are you going to believe—Reilly, or your lying ears?
According to an attorney who has seen the decisions, Columbia County Judge Richard Koweek “ruled in favor of Ginsberg’s on all four lawsuits” and has ordered the Ghent Planning Board to grant the company a special use permit.
As a rule, it is very rare in New York State for judges to overrule decisions by local agencies such as planning and zoning boards.
The decision is ironic in at least one respect: The State Authorities Budget Office decided not to delve deeper into the conflict of interest issues related to Ginsberg’s and the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, due to the denial by the Ghent Planning Board. The ABO said that the denial rendered such conflict questions moot:
No harm has yet arisen[emphasis added] from the board’s failure to follow its own policies since the Ginsberg Foods expansion project was not approved by the Ghent Planning Board. This may not always be the case with future projects.
Today’s news begs the question: What harm may have arisen now?
The new organic dairy barn in Churchtown, designed and built by Rick Anderson for Abby Rockefeller (first reported upon here several years ago), had an open house Saturday afternoon in conjunction with the nearby Triform Camphill site. More photos of the site and event are below: