|[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]
New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 18, 2008
Conflict claimed, refuted
By Jo E. Prout
NEW SCOTLAND Supporters wearing New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development buttons questioned the town board last week on its appointment of planning board member Cynthia Elliott to the Commercial Zone Advisory Committee, claiming a conflict of interest.
Also, the town board agreed to hold a hearing to extend the moratorium on large-scale commercial development for an additional three-months. The committee had requested more time to make recommendations in the wake of a proposal for a 750,000-square-foot retail mall, on aligning the town’s zoning with its comprehensive land-use plan.
Resident Edie Abrams asked the board to define Elliott’s role on both the board and the committee.
“When the moratorium resolution comes before the planning board to extend the moratorium, we have a member who is both on the planning board and on CZAC,” Abrams said. The planning board voted against having a moratorium in the first place.
“Your thought was that there is a conflict?” asked Supervisor Thomas Dolin.
Residents asked if the planning board alternate member could take Elliott’s place when CZAC gives its report to the planning board.
Dolin said that the town cannot dictate that a planning board alternate take someone’s place; rather, an alternate can fill in if someone is absent.
“Did you foresee a conflict of interest” when Elliott was appointed? asked Christine Galvin.
Town Attorney Michael Mackey said that, if the board agrees that Elliott should recuse herself from CZAC-related discussions, it can ask her to do so.
“Ultimately, the decision is hers,” Mackey said. “She’s entitled to exercise the rights and privileges of being a member of that board.”
Dolin said that the recommendations made by the committee are more critical than the moratorium extension suggested by CZAC.
“She’s a licensed professional,” Dolin said about Elliott, who is a surveyor. “I wonder if we’re really creating a problem where it doesn’t exist.”
CZAC member Elizabeth Kormos said that, in hindsight, the town board should not have placed a planning board member on the committee.
“I don’t think it’s our place” to ask Elliott to step aside, said town board member Deborah Baron. “Your chairperson has spoken highly of her.”
“It really was the town board that created this conflict of interest,” Galvin said. She said that the town board cannot explain how Elliott can review her own recommendation and vote on it as a planning board member.
“It would give the appearance of impropriety, and taint the process,” Galvin said.
Mark Davies, the executive director of the New York City Board of Ethics and the former head of the state ethics commission, told The Enterprise that a conflict of interest is a “conflict between official duties and private interests.”
He said that being a planning board member and a member of an advisory committee “are two public positions. That’s what they call dual-office holding or incompatibility to public office.”
He said, however, that, if the committee is “ad hoc” and not made up of municipal officials, then “I don’t really see a particular issue. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem.
“If it were a private group to stop development in town and he was on the planning board,” Davies said of a hypothetical board member, “that’s probably a conflict of interest. But, that’s private.”
Each town board member selected a CZAC member. Councilman Richard Reilly chose Elliott for the committee in May. At the town board meeting last week, Reilly said, “I would make that appointment, again, today.” He said that the issue of whether or not there is a conflict should be reviewed.
In May, Reilly referred to Behan Planning Associates planner Michael Welti, who was hired by the town to guide the committee. Welti’s initial recommendation to the town was to place a planning board member on the committee, Reilly said.
“If we were doing an update or amendment to the comprehensive plan, then you would want to have a planning board member on the committee…by law,” Welti told The Enterprise this week.
The scope of the project has changed since that time, Welti said.
“I don’t think there’s a conflict of interest having a planning board member on the committee,” Welti said. Planning board members work with town code all the time, he said.
“I think it is appropriate to have someone on there with a detailed knowledge of our zoning laws,” Reilly said in May. “I think it’s important to have at least one member of the committee that has some significant experience not just with land-use issues generally, but with our code and our comprehensive plan, specifically.”
This week, Reilly told The Enterprise, “I don’t know that I accept the premise that there’s a conflict.” He said that Elliott does not have “direct or indirect pecuniary interest” or “any financial stake in any of the issues before the town. She brings balance to the committee.”
He said that many sitting board members serve on advisory committees within the town.
“To have their perspectives on these advisory committees is, I think, appropriate,” Reilly said. “Ultimately, it’s the town board that will make any decision to change zoning.” Elliott, with her dual role, may be able to offer two opinions rather than one, he said.
“I don’t find it in conflict,” Cynthia Elliott told The Enterprise. She said that she has no principal, or financial, interest with the zoning proposal.
“Since I have none, it’s not a conflict,” she said.
If she supported the issues of those who suggested the conflict of interest, Elliott said, “I’m certain that they would welcome my vote. But, since I express a different view, they want to silence me.”
The town board agreed to hold a public hearing to extend the six-month moratorium on large-scale commercial development. The current moratorium will end Nov. 21.
Members of CZAC told the board in August that its recommendations would not be complete by the November deadline.
The board proposed a three-month extension that would end March 1, 2009.
The public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 12 at 6 p.m., immediately before the town board meeting at 7 p.m.
“This doesn’t preclude extending it if we run into a snafu,” said board member Douglas LaGrange.
Resident Robert Mitchell, an NS4SED supporter, told the town board last week that poll workers during Tuesday’s primary election told him to move back with his NS4SED materials or they would have him arrested.
The workers accused him of electioneering, he said. Mitchell said that electioneering must include a candidate or an issue on the election ballot, and that he was just giving out information about a townwide issue that was not on the ballot.
He said that one of the workers shook her finger at him.
“I was personally offended by the experience,” Mitchell said. He said that many town residents dismiss the petition by NS4SED against large retail developments as being unrepresentative of the people. He said that many residents are closed-minded about NS4SED and see its members as “outside or upstarts.”
Mitchell was not the only member to be asked to stay back with materials. Resident Dean Sommer told the board that his wife had been pushed out into the dark road with her “aggravating” buttons and other materials.
NS4SED members were reminded to stay behind the posted signs at the town hall, the Wyman Osterhout Community Center, and St. Matthew’s Church polling places, Town Clerk Diane Deschenes told The Enterprise.
After the first incident, Deschenes said, she contacted the Albany County Board of Elections and was told that handing out the NS4SED materials was considered to be electioneering, even if it did not pertain to a current election ballot.
“It was an interference with the election process,” she said.
According to a representative of the board of elections, the statewide limit for electioneering is 100 feet from the entrance of the polling place.
“We just tried to enforce the guidelines that were set forth by the state board of elections,” Deschenes said, “to make sure people were aware of that law.”
She said that the poll workers “weren’t given tape measures or anything. They just pace it off.”
Deschenes said that she received an e-mail from one NS4SED member who thought that the marker noting the 100-foot limit was in the wrong place.
“This is the first time we’ve had a problem. They just pace it off and look for a tree or pole to put the sign on,” Deschenes said. “I’ll look at where it is for the general election. We’ll try to do better in the future to identify the 100 feet.”
In other business, the town board:
Agreed to consider a 25 miles-per-hour speed limit for Dunbar Hollow Road, on which there is only one house, and which ends at a sportsman club.
“The cars fly up that gravel road. It gets to be pretty tough,” LaGrange said;
Agreed to close town offices on Friday, Dec. 26. Employees will be “forced to take the day off or use personal time,” Dolin said.
Highway Superintendent Darrell Duncan and board member Baron said that the day off would not apply to the highway department;
Approved water-rate increases for the Clarksville, Northeast, and Heldervale districts. The rates for the Northeast district will not increase this year, but will see a 3-percent increase next year to cover electricity and personnel costs, the board said.
Heldervale will have a 5-percent increase based on the rate increase from the neighboring town of Bethlehem, which supplies the district.
Clarksville will see an 8- to 10-percent increase. Residents were notified in February, but were not given rates.
“Sewer rates for Heldervale will remain the same, thank goodness,” Dolin said;
Agreed to pay $113,667.50 to J.N.P. Construction for repairs to the Clarksville water tank.
“It’s not just a paint job. It’s a true polymer coating,” said town engineer Keith Menia;
Adopted Jacob Court and Madison Lane, both off Youmans Road, as town roads. Jacob Court now has two homes, and Madison Lane has three.
“We have to make the houses, as a town, be found by 911,” Duncan said;
Agreed to hire the law firm Hacker & Murphy to represent the town in assessment litigation;
Adopted a law to prevent owners of existing buildings from paying fewer taxes than other properties by combining and forming a condominium. Under state law, the board said, condominiums receive lower tax rates;
Reappointed Paul Nichols to the Board of Assessment Review; and
Entered into executive session to discuss personnel issues, potential litigation, and intermunicipal negotiations about water.