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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 30, 2008
Ethics hearing postponed
By Jo E. Prout
NEW SCOTLAND The town has postponed a controversial ethics hearing for Commercial Zoning Advisory Committee co-chairwoman Elizabeth Kormos that was supposed to be held Wednesday.
“We’re still working on the procedures that will govern the proceeding,” said Superintendent Thomas Dolin. “I suspect it will be rescheduled fairly quickly, probably no more than two weeks out.”
Kormos, who owns a real-estate and health-care consulting company, is accused of having a conflict of interest because she once represented a developer who was interested in the Bender property.
Currently, Sphere Development, of central New York, has proposed building a 750,000-square-foot retail mall on the Bender property located at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A. Massive citizen protests led the town board to adopt a commercial building moratorium while a committee was charged with recommending zoning to comply with the town’s 1994 comprehensive land-use plan.
Kormos favors a 50,000-foot cap supported by New Scotlanders for Sound Economic Development, of which she is a member. Sphere has called for Kormos’s removal from the committee. She has refused and said there is no conflict.
“We’re absolutely pleased with the postponement. It was the right thing for the board to do,” said Peter Lauricella, Kormos’s attorney. “We had a lot of issues with the way the process had been conducted up to this point. They’ve taken it to task. My only assumption is that the board has some concern about the way this has been proceeding.”
Lauricella sent an e-mail to the town board last week requesting that the ethics hearing be adjourned because of a lack of evidence, including documents with blacked-out, or redacted, information, and because a list of witnesses has not yet been produced.
He said that he hopes the board will determine that “it’s not worth going forward with. The flimsy amount of evidence we’ve seen is simply not credible or close enough to demonstrate a conflict of interest.”
Lauricella said that the board should “drop this matter and let Liz go back to her work on the board. That would be the ultimate goal here. My client’s reputation has been fairly scarred. These allegations have certainly been hurtful for her. They’re untrue.”
The conflict-of-interest issue was first raised in a closed session at the Sept. 24 CZAC meeting.
“CZAC had no authority to go into executive session,” Lauricella said. “One of the directives of creating the committee [was that] all of the meetings would be open to the public. My view of the Open Meetings Law, you cannot go into executive session. By going into executive session…that also violated Ms. Kormos’s right to a confidential hearing in the ethics matter.
“Town law says ethics matters are confidential unless the accused waives that right,” Lauricella continued. “That violated her right to a confidential hearing in the first place. The ethics law says that all ethics matters are confidential unless waived by the client.”
CZAC Chairwoman Roselyn Robinson, an attorney who represents real estate buyers and sellers, said that she was told by an attorney with the Association of Towns that she could, as an advisory committee chairwoman, call an executive session.
“There’s been a gross misinterpretation of what happened,” Robinson said.
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.
Robinson said that she met one of the owners of the Bender melon farm property, and that he wanted to meet the committee. He attended the next CZAC meeting, she said.
“He put his arm around her [Kormos] and said, ‘I know Liz, she made an offer on the property,’ ” Robinson said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that could be a problem.’ ”
She said that the Sept. 24 meeting took place in public in an auditorium, with the entire five-member CZAC committee, including John Biscone and Cynthia Elliott.
“They both thought there was a conflict,” Robinson said. Two days after the meeting where the doctor mentioned knowing Kormos, Robinson called Supervisor Thomas Dolin to see if she could call an executive session, Robinson said.
Dolin was in Europe then, so she called Deputy Supervisor Richard Reilly, who, as an attorney, was unavailable because he was in a trial, Robinson said.
Robinson said that she did not contact board member Douglas LaGrange, who had appointed Kormos, or board member Deborah Baron, who had appointed her.
Robinson called board member Peg Neri and asked her how to find out if she could go into executive session, she said. Neri, who is also an attorney, suggested that Robinson call the Association of Towns, Robinson said.
A member of the association’s legal department asked Robinson to read the committee’s charge, she said. Normally, an advisory committee would not be able to hold an executive session, she was told, but, because the meetings were designed to be open to the public, the Open Meetings Law prevailed and she would be able to enter into executive session, Robinson said.
She was told, “You have to say you’re going into executive session for a personnel matter regarding a member of the committee,” Robinson said; she followed the advice.
Assistant Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government Camille Jobin-Davis told The Enterprise earlier this month that, if a committee has the authority to remove a member, it could properly meet in executive session to discuss the removal. CZAC does not have that authority.
Jobin-Davis also said that, if the committee framed its motion by saying it would meet to discuss whether to recommend the removal of a member, it could properly meet in executive session.
Yesterday, Robert Freeman, the executive director for the Committee on Open Government, said Camille Jobin-Davis’s assessment was accurate but added of the situation, “It’s putting the cart before the horse.” Unless the town board specifically directed the committee to abide by the Open Meetings Law, Freeman said, “They can do whatever they want in private.”
Lauricella requested that the town board issue a formal charge against Kormos and provide the documents for that charge, he said.
“We requested to see those documents before the hearing, which is par for the course when you have a trial,” Lauricella said. He said that he received the documents Monday, two days before the hearing was to be held. The documents were incomplete and partially redacted, he said.
“I don’t know who redacted them. I don’t know why they were redacted. You need a court order to redact documents on your side. I don’t think they have the right to do that,” he said.
Dolin, a lawyer and a former town judge, said that he will not read the documents until he receives legal counsel. He does not want to pre-judge them, he said.
“We just have the redacted version,” he said about Lauricella’s complaint. “We’re just the citers of the fact. We’re going to designate an attorney for the board.” Robinson will be a witness, rather than a prosecutor, he said.
Robinson said that the attorney for the owners of the former Bender melon farm, MLF Enterprises, sent the documents to her, and she forwarded them to the town board.
“They were letters of intent” with “prices and whatnot,” Robinson said. “It seems to be mostly the amount of the offers” that are blacked out, she said.
“These letters were Liz’s. She certainly has the unredacted letters,” Robinson said.
“The town has a case to prove against Ms. Kormos,” Lauricella said. “They have to provide evidence. That’s improper to redact documents that are their evidence.”
Lauricella said that Kormos does have the original, unredacted documents. “We have no obligations to produce these documents,” he said.
When The Enterprise suggested that the information had been blocked to prevent the offering prices from being made public, Lauricella said, “That makes sense for the seller’s attorney. What business do they have doing that?
“The whole ethics hearing smells. Why are [town board members] even talking to the sellers? It makes you wonder why this whole hearing is happening in the first place,” Lauricella said.
“I just feel badly that it’s completely out of hand,” Robinson said. “I wish this all could be put to bed. I see myself as the plaintiff, or whatever. If I were the local butcher and a member of the committee, no one would be asking me to prosecute. I don’t have any experience with administrative hearings.”
Robinson said that several members of the public told her that, before the committee met about the possible real estate conflict, they had wondered if Kormos had a conflict of interest because of her interview on Capital News 9.
The news channel had interviewed Kormos, who had asked to be identified as a member of the grassroots group New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, which favors a size cap of 50,000 square feet on commercial development, Robinson said.
Capital News 9 identified Kormos as a member of CZAC who was espousing a 50,000 square-foot cap. Some members of the public were confused about whether or not the committee had made up its mind before it heard the public’s view, Robinson said.
Gary Holmes, the Capital 9 news director, said, “We CG someone by their official title.” That means the station identifies a person with a character generator, placing a caption under the picture. Most often, the person being interviewed is asked for her name and title, he told The Enterprise.
Capital News 9 anchor Tammy Palmer told The Enterprise she was prepared to interview Daniel Mackay from New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development but, instead, a woman arrived at the studio. It was Kormos. “She first and foremost identified herself as a member of CZAC,” said Palmer, but added that Kormos also said she worked with New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development.
Palmer later called back, having gone to the trouble to review her questions from the interview, and noted that the quote from Kormos that currently appears on the news station’s website identifying her as a CZAC member was in answer to a question that began, “I know you’re a member of New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development….”
Kormos is quoted as saying, “We do not want to attract a developer that will build a project that will end up empty. So we have actually done some research on what size retail development the town could support and came up with a number of 50,000 square feet.”
Palmer also noted that this was one small part of a much longer interview.
“There was a workshop,” Lauricella said. “Liz is on a committee. They [Capital News 9] asked her about her view as to what the recommendations should be. She gave her viewpoint. It’s just an expression of an opinion. Ms. Robinson, I would contend, is getting confused between a legal conflict of intent and a different opinion about what should be done with a property.”