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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 2, 2008

Accused of a conflict of interest, Kormos says: “I will not resign”

By Jo E. Prout

NEW SCOTLAND — Elizabeth Kormos, backed by a grassroots group she helped found, says she will not resign from the committee appointed to recommend commercial zoning for the old Bender melon farm.

The committee met last Wednesday in private to discuss what some members say is a conflict of interest for Kormos and asked her to resign.

“I was…stunned last week when, without any prior notice to me, CZAC Chair [Roselyn] Robinson suggested that I resign from the committee immediately,” Kormos said in her statement released Tuesday.

“I expected CZAC to be a venue to discuss the goals of the comprehensive plan,” Kormos told The Enterprise, “and the clear wishes of the residents in New Scotland to develop zoning recommendations for the town board that incorporate the concepts of a hamlet development and keeps true to our semi-rural environment.

“With this recent distraction, I am concerned over the effectiveness of the committee to complete its task, but am still committed to trying to make it work. I feel now more than ever that the process must be open and transparent and that voices of New Scotland residents…be heard and heeded by our elected officials,” Kormos said.

Kormos, the co-chairwoman of CZAC, owns Kormos and Company, LLC, a real estate and healthcare consulting company that provides comprehensive market and financial feasibility studies and development services, according to the Kormos website. Kormos is also a senior consultant with tenant representatives Conley Associates, in Albany.

Kormos’s position on the five-member committee is seen as crucial by members of the group New Scotlanders for Sound Economic Development.

“She’s a founding member of the organization,” said Daniel Mackay, another founder. “My sense is that at least two other [committee] members support a 100,000-square-foot cap. Losing Liz would be a critical loss.”

Kormos, who detailed her views at great length in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, favors a 50,000-square-foot cap for individual buildings and a 100,000-square-foot cap for shopping centers. NS4SED have posted signs around town calling for a 50,000-square-foot cap.

If she leaves the committee, the town would lose her “experience and viewpoint,” Mackay said. “That’s a concern to us. If she’s removed, we lose a vote for a smaller-sized cap.”

The advisory committee was appointed in May after hundreds protested Sphere Development’s plans to build a 750,000-square-foot retail mall near the intersection of routes 85 and 85A. The melee caused the town to reevaluate its zoning requirements according to its 1994 comprehensive plan.  The town placed a moratorium on large commercial development. That moratorium will expire at the end of November, but the town board proposed a three-month extension that will go to a public hearing this month.

The five committee members were each appointed in May by a town board member. Councilman Douglas LaGrange appointed Kormos.

“She has a tremendous amount of knowledge when it comes to lining up developers for a specific area and situation,” LaGrange said of Kormos in May.

Conflict between members

In her statement, Kormos said that fellow CZAC members John Biscone and Cynthia Elliott had urged Robinson to investigate Kormos’s relationship with the Bender property. She said that both Biscone and Elliott are “proponents of large-scale regional retail development.”

Biscone was appointed by town board member Peg Neri. Neri asked her to resign, also, Kormos said.

Neri did not return calls seeking comment.

Biscone is a former town attorney in New Scotland.

“I think John’s experienced in zoning and land use, he’s open-minded, and I think all of his experience enables him to see the big picture,” Neri said last May when she chose him for the committee.

Biscone would not comment to The Enterprise this week on Kormos or on whether or not she had been asked to resign.

Cynthia Elliott, as a member of the town’s planning board, came under fire two weeks ago when NS4SED supporter Edie Abrams asked the town board about Elliott’s appointment.

Kormos, who wore a pin supporting the NS4SED at that meeting, said then that the town board should not have placed a planning board member on the advisory committee.

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 then 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.”

Elliott did not return calls this week about the suggestion of Kormos’s conflict of interest.

“I will not resign”

In her letter to the town board after the CZAC meeting at which she was asked to step down, Kormos said that the last time she had business discussions with the owner of the Bender property was in 1996.

“A contract was not signed because the builder decided to withdraw his interest in the property,” Kormos wrote. “That was the last time I communicated with that builder and the last time I had any interest in the Bender property. Unknown to me, the builder had apparently made another offer for the property for a similar type of development project and placed a deposit. Sphere Development, thereafter, came in with a higher offer, which was accepted by the owners.”

The 179-acre property is owned by a group of doctors listed as MLF Enterprises, and is currently assessed by the town at $734,700, and this spring had an asking price of $4 million.

“I have no involvement with any entity with a financial interest in the subject property,” Kormos said in her statement this week, “the Bender farm or any other property in the commercial zone. Accordingly, I will not resign.”

CZAC Chairwoman Robinson told The Enterprise that she could not comment about Kormos because of privacy issues and because the discussion about Kormos took place in executive session.

The state’s Open Meetings Law allows boards to met in closed session to discuss “matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.”

“This matter’s been referred to the town board,” Robinson said. “Some of the information in that press release [by Kormos] is not accurate. That is not how it played out.”

Robinson said that the next CZAC meeting had been scheduled for tonight, Thursday, but that she would cancel it.

Asked if CZAC could still be effective, she said, “I think it can be…It has been until now. It depends on the resolution of this issue. We were coming to some kind of consensus.”

Town Attorney Michael Mackey told The Enterprise that, according to the town ethics law, a confidential hearing must be held by the town board to determine if a conflict of interest exists. Only the town board has the authority to declare a conflict of interest, “and only after a hearing,” Mackey said.

Robinson said that the committee could go on as it is now with five members, or it could change, depending on the town board’s decision. She said that CZAC had been settling on “some kind of a [size] cap. I don’t have a number on that, yet.”

“Everything that was discussed…we were all starting to hone in on some stuff,” Robinson said. CZAC was almost ready to “start drafting a proposed new zoning law,” she said, but then “a conflict of interest came to my attention.”

Kormos has the support of NS4SED members, who released a press statement supporting her this week.

“Liz has been the most vocal advocate…for an appropriately-scaled retail size cap,” Daniel Mackay told The Enterprise. “We were very pleased that [a person with] her expertise…was appointed to the committee.”

Calling Biscone and Elliott “out of sync” with what the majority of town residents want, Mackay said, “We’re not at all clear where the other members of the committee stand on the size issue.”

Mackay said that charges of a conflict of interest on Kormos’s part had been “trumped up and misreported.” He said that, once the town board looks at the issue, “Liz [will be] easily exonerated by any conflict of interest in this matter.”

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