No conflict of interest, NYS Comptroller’s Office says

Yesterday I had a long email exchange with Madeline Fletcher, the Consulting Director for the Newburgh Community Land Bank, covering various topics including the issue of conflicts of interest.  I had asked her if anyone had ever covered Karen Mejia’s situation since she serves as a councilperson but she also has a part-time job with the Greater Newburgh Partnership and sits on the Newburgh Community Landbank as the council’s representative.  Ms. Fletcher was not immediately aware of anything.

I decided to contact the NYS Comptroller’s Office to see if they could help, and, as it turned out, they could.  Brian Butry from the press office cited these two passages from NYS code :

Not-for-Profit Corp Law § 1605. Board of directors.
(c)  Any  public  officer shall be eligible to serve as a board member
and the acceptance of the appointment shall neither terminate nor impair
such public office. For purposes of this section, “public officer” shall
mean a person who is  elected  to  a  municipal  office.  Any  municipal
employee  or  appointed  officer  shall  be eligible to serve as a board
member.
***

http://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/gmlposter.pdf

GML § 802. Exceptions. The provisions of section eight hundred one of this
chapter shall not apply to:
1.  ***
f. A  contract  with  a  membership  corporation  or  other  voluntary
 non-profit  corporation  or  association  including, but not limited to,
rural electric cooperatives….

 

In other words, from the first passage Ms. Mejia is eligible to serve on the landbank board even though she is a councilperson, and from the second passage, the “exception” it is referring to is conflict of interests enumerated in the previous passage, therefore, since the Greater Newburgh Partnership is a non-profit corporation it is exempt from the conflict of interest problems.

 

In pictures: Newburgh Community Landbank Meeting 4/16/14

AGSueSullivanThe meeting began with Sue Sullivan from the Greater Newburgh Partnership introducing a man from the state government who explained various timeframes for funding that could be applied for by the landbank.  (My descriptions are vague due to acoustic limitations as I will explain further below.)

audience

“What’s that you’re saying?”–well that’s what I said, anyway, as it was impossible to hear much of the discussion without the board using microphones.  Here’s a shot of the audience on the other side of the room.

CMnFC

After asking once, I asked again and called out City Manager James Slaughter and Fire Chief Michael Vatter that they should be ashamed of themselves that between the two of them they were incapable of opening the closet that houses the microphone controls.  They promised to look it up for future meetings, and as a temporary solution for this meeting invited anyone having difficulty to the table.  I pulled up a chair.

unitex

Board members.  Most of the meeting was spent listening to very early pitches by potential developers.  I wish I could tell you more but those pretty little things on the table are just cosmetic, they don’t actually work as microphones!

Karen

More board members.  The conflict of interest updates agenda item was nothing to get excited about, just filling out a routine form.  Madeline Fletcher directed me to the landbank website to see the existing CoI form, but I can’t locate it anywhere.  I have emailed her and asked for a copy, as well as asking her if anyone has ever formally addressed the issue of Karen Mejia serving on Council, having a consulting relationship with GNP, and serving on the landbank for the council.  I’ll keep you posted.

Bklyn

These guys, sorry not perfectly photographed in all their Brooklyn glory, anyway they were the last presenters who maybe might be interested in developing a bunch of properties.  The two guys before them, two individuals who went up to the table consecutively, I could not hear anything at all.  Now I know how my deaf father feels.  So I don’t know what to tell you.

But, I think the idea of landbanks, and here we have the gap between theory and practice, the idea is that landbanks should bat better than average of your general municipal land disposal arrangement, because landbanks are Specialists who Handpick just the right projects and developers for each property they have, no matter how dilapidated or sad.  What seems to be going on at this meeting anyway is the landbank is just so grateful that anyone at all is expressing interest, they’ll go along with that.  Of course, I could be wrong about this, because after all, I was auditorily handicapped for more than half of the meeting.

At any rate, there was some dissension in the ranks, as the guys pictured above wanted restaurants and bars and multifamily housing and they just love Beacon and you can buy wine there, good wine for $15, to be interrupted by Karen Mejia with sharp words in an anti-gentrification speech about not pushing out the existing population.

To. Be. Continued.

New DP techniques: Two Thumbs Up

I was unable to attend Tuesday, November 12th’s Newburgh City Council meeting so I caught up with it today by watching it on the city’s youtube channel.

I was overjoyed to see the return of good director of photography practices, such as zooming in appropriately on the speaking subject, instead of the practice of yore of sitting like an unattended security camera on the council table, even when the public would be giving comments.  They may be only my two thumbs, but nonetheless I lift them up to you, IT department, for doing a proper job.

As for the rest, it was refreshing to have a prayer that was light on the Praise Jesuses and the hallelujahs and surprisingly brief.  Although the council agreed on most resolutions, and disagreement was limited to one dissenting party, the dissent was presented in a civilized and reasonable manner for the most part.  In the case of Mayor Kennedy’s astonishing dissidence with the Mid-Broadway project, I’m disappointed we haven’t heard from this mayor before–it sounds like she has some important things to say.  Although in the end the majority ruled, and we will have our preposterously double-parked, wooden-constructed shantytown over a discount supermarket, whether it brings disaster (as some say it will) or more development (as others say it will) remains to be seen.

Ain’t I Newburgh

With all due respect to the memory of Sojourner Truth.

I went to Horizons-on-the-Hudson Magnet School in the 1970s.  Ain’t I Newburgh?

At HOH in those days, they taught us to think critically and ask questions.  Some of the junior high school teachers would complain about us HOH kids because we asked “too many” questions.  Ain’t I Newburgh?

I prefer not to confuse advertising campaigns with religious movements.  Ain’t I Newburgh?

I believe that negative thinking can be lifesaving.  Ain’t I Newburgh?

I hope that when you see the “I am Newburgh” signs, you will also think about what they ain’t.  Ain’t I Newburgh?

Work session recordings now available

Today I received an email from Ann Kuzmik, Administrative Assistant to the City Manager, that the work session recordings are now available thanks to the city’s IT department.

You can access the recordings here: https://archive.org/details/newburghnyworksessions

Many thanks to the city manager, city council, and the IT department for making this possible so swiftly after my request at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

Open Government Requests to the City

I read the following letter during the public comment period at this evening’s Newburgh City Council Meeting.

October 15, 2013

Dear City Council and City Manager,

On January 8, 2013, I hand-delivered an ethics complaint to each of the city council members.  This was followed up with a phone call to the mayor.  My carefully considered ethics complaint was completely ignored and I received no acknowledgment whatsoever.

Ten months later, we have a new acting city manager; and my ethics complaint has grown stale since it concerned the actions of Richard Herbek.

However, what has not grown stale is my outrage that you would not even bother to acknowledge my letter, let alone consider its contents and make a determination.  In my opinion, this makes all five of you unfit for public office.

I would also like to make the following recommendations:

  1. All letters and phone calls to city hall should be acknowledged.
  2. The staff member videotaping of city council meetings should be directed to MOVE THE CAMERA to follow the action.  If it is a public comment period, the camera should be focused on the member of the public speaking—not stay on the city council for the whole meeting.  If someone gives a presentation to the council, that presentation should be the focus of the camera.  It is deplorable that the only thing we see is the council, especially when others are speaking.
  3. I have already written to the city manager and Councilman Brown, who brought up the issue months ago, of having the recordings of the work sessions put on the website.  I am very familiar with this technology and it is exceedingly simple, fast, and cheap to do so.  It is outrageous that this is not done.  I recommend the website archive.org as a hoster.
  4. I have made Freedom of Information Law requests to the City of Newburgh since 2006.  Numerous times, I have requested documents by an email request sent to the city’s clerk.  This is in compliance with the NYS Committee on Open Government, which has written that “The law also provides that agencies must accept requests and transmit records requested via email when they have the ability to do so.” http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/Right_to_know.html#foil
    Therefore, I am dismayed that on the city’s current “FOIL” page, we are directed that “To make a Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) request for information from any part of city goverment, you must fill out an application at the City Clerk’s office, which will process the request and forward it to the appropriate department.”  Not only does your webpage misspell “government,” but it is not in compliance with state law.  Please add the provision and directions on how to make FOIL requests by email.

Thank you,
A. Jane Johnston

A request for recordings

Dear Councilman Brown,

I am writing to you in particular because I read in the minutes of a council meeting a year or so ago that you had asked then City Manager Herbek if it would be possible to put the work session recordings on the city’s website.  Herbek had responded that it would be difficult, and said he would ask Glenn Kurcon (the IT guy) about it.  Nothing further happened.

Well, I was astonished when I read this in the minutes, because I believe Herbek gave you misinformation, whether it was intentional or accidental I don’t know.

The truth is, it is actually very easy to put audio recordings on the web–easier even than uploading video to youtube!

Below is a letter I sent to City Manager Slaughter on September 5th, I have not heard back from him, but I hope that you will champion this request which would really help so many people who can’t always make it to work sessions!

Dear Mr. Slaughter,

I am a City of Newburgh resident who has kept a blog about city and county government since 2006.  I am very familiar with website construction, hosting, and maintenance.  In the past and more recently on occasion, I have attended and covered issues arising from city council work sessions.  However, for various reasons sometimes I am unable to attend these meetings.

A few years ago, at the request of a council person, the work sessions began to be recorded on compact disc.  The IT director took care of the process.  Several times since then I have made FOIL requests for these recordings of work session meetings.  I received copies on CDs.

Since it is incredibly easy, quick, simple and cheap to upload these audio recordings to hosting sites such as the extremely reputable Archive.org, I request that the city begin doing this, in the interest of greater transparency and accessibility to its citizens.

After all, the regular city council meetings are put on youtube, this would seem to me to be a natural extension of the city’s open government policy.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you wish to discuss this matter further.  I know there would be many very happy citizens out there if you agree.

Sincerely yours,
A. Jane Johnston

Obituary

Obituary for democracy

Participatory Democracy in the City of Newburgh passed away after a lifetime battling chronic threats and illnesses, surrounded by family mem­bers and friends. In her final years she wrote letters, made telephone calls and increas­ingly rare appearances at government meetings. Lack of response and acknowledgment of her correspondence, an “I don’t care” attitude of public officials, and closed meet­ings to which the public were not invited contributed to her death.

Participatory Democracy was predeceased by her hus­band, Open Meetings Law. She is survived by her many chil­dren, too numerous to name individually, and in the inter­est of kindness too painful to acknowledge publicly.

In lieu of flowers, friends may mark her death by extin­guishing a candle.

Respectfully submitted,
A. JANE JOHNSTON
Newburgh

This letter appeared in Wednesday’s print edition of the Times Herald-Record.

Pulling the Plug on the NLDC

IMG_1507

Two years after former IDA Director Ed Lynch asked the Authorities Budget Office for more time to consider what to do about the delinquent Newburgh Local Development Corporation, it looks like the city has finally come to the conclusion to pull the plug.

A recent FOIL request to the ABO revealed that the city’s Industrial Development Agency and City Manager Richard Herbek had been given a warning by the ABO about the delinquency of the Local Development Corporation.  The LDC has been getting warnings since at least 2011, when I wrote about them here and here.

From one of those earlier posts, dated June 13, 2011, I wrote:

Newburgh Industrial Development Agency chair Joshua Smith said the old NLDC bylaws describe the board “as the city council and the IDA.  We have at least twice asked the council to join us in a meeting.  I plan to raise the issue again at our next meeting.”  That meeting will be June 20, at 7 p.m. in City Hall. [Emphasis added]

Following up on that, in a post from October 10, 2011, I wrote:

During that [June 20, 2011] meeting, the minutes state that “Mr. Whyatt proposes convening a special LDC meeting at which the IDA members can vote as a majority on any actions it deems necessary, such as obtaining banking records, determining assets, etc.”

However, it is not apparent that any action has been taken.  NLDC last appeared as an agenda item at the July meeting, but the chairman preempted discussion by saying there was nothing to discuss, and moved on to the next agenda item.  It has not reappeared since.

Teri Waivada, the IDA’s current executive director, shrugged off responsibility for the NLDC, stating that it has never met with the IDA’s current board members, although she believes the corporation is still active (which does not make any sense to me, unless by “active” she means it has not yet been officially dissolved):

teri

For his part, City Manager Herbek writes that the city will be reviewing how to disband the NLDC:

abo-herbek

Final Thoughts

Is there any reason to keep the NLDC?  As I have written previously, local development corporations can do things that industrial development agencies can’t, such as provide funding for nonprofits.  At the county level, our Orange Count Industrial Development Agency board asked the county legislature a few years ago to create the Orange County Funding Corporation, a local development corporation, for just this purpose.  When Mount Saint Mary College was looking for bonding money to help pay for a construction project, they went to the OCFC, and were successful in getting bonds.

The Mount did not go to the Newburgh Local Development Corporation, if they even knew it existed.  Should they have?  Would it be a good idea for Newburgh to have its own funding entity for nonprofits and small businesses?

As someone who has sat through countless Newburgh IDA meetings, and a good many Orange County IDA meetings, as well as countless Newburgh City Council meetings, in my opinion it is just not worth it.

Officially the NLDC board is made up of the city council plus the IDA board.  The IDA has toyed with the concept of doing something about the LDC, but they have a difficult enough time carrying on regular business as it is.  In contrast, the county IDA (who make up the board of the OCFC as well) has a board that is a well-oiled machine, and includes financial professionals.

The Newburgh IDA cannot compete with them in terms of resources.

In this case, to get the NLDC operational again would demand meetings of the existing gigantic board of twelve members to come to a consensus about what to do, even if that is to appoint a new board and/or alter the NLDC bylaws.  This idea seems preposterous, especially since the board has never met in the two or more years it has been officially listed as delinquent with the state.

To have one LDC to cover Orange County (I do not know of other LDCs in cities or villages of the county, although their existence would not surprise me) is perfectly reasonable.

The only potential thorn I foresee is that the NLDC board must meet to approve dissolution.  Despite requests by the ABO for over two years, the city has dragged its feet.  I wish City Manager Herbek luck in herding the cats.

I beg your forgiveness

March 20, 2013

Mayor Judy Kennedy
Deputy Mayor Regina Angelo
Councilman Cedric Brown
Councilman Curlie Dillard
Councilwoman Gay Lee

Re: Ethics Complaint of January 8, 2013

Dear City Council,

Perhaps you remember way back on January 8th of this year I hand delivered notarized copies to each of you at City Hall of an ethics complaint against City Manager Richard Herbek.  I took great care in researching and writing the ethics complaint and made sure to reference the City of Newburgh’s own code to cite what I believed were violations, specifically regarding Herbek’s consulting relationship with the company he hired to make the new city website.

I would like to personally and publicly thank each and every council member for totally ignoring my complaint, and failing to respond in any way, either by letter or verbally.  Your wisdom, prudence, and intelligence surely outshine mine, and I thank you for humbling me by implicitly indicating that my tawdry efforts do not merit acknowledgment.  You five council members are pillars of good government, transparency, and everything that is to be lauded in this community and government administration, and you are so superior to me I do not deserve to know you.  I do not deserve to attend your council meetings.  I do not deserve to receive a slip of paper from you, indicating that “this does not concern you, move along.”

Most humbly, respectfully, and with trembling hands, I beg your forgiveness.

Sincerely,
A. Jane Johnston

The trouble with Newburgh, explained through court tv programs

gavel

I am a fan of Judge Judy.  I find her so entertaining I even found myself watching her almost daily during a trip to Northern Ireland last year.  Perhaps it is the vicarious pleasure of her cutting through sorry tales or other nonsense with her piercing logic.  As she explained on one show recently, to a defendant who insisted on trying to talk out of order, she asks the questions, the two parties answer, and then she makes a decision based on the information she has gathered.  Those are the rules of her court.

Occasionally, my television viewing takes me to other channels (although honestly whatever’s on CBS is usually good enough for me, and when it’s not, I cross my fingers that the Food Channel is running episodes of Chopped.  I love watching the judges critique what are usually inedible creations but nonetheless mesmerizing.  My love for this show is no doubt a legacy of a lifetime in art school and the artworld.)  Anyway, what I was getting to is that occasionally I have watched Divorce Court–perhaps a few times, in contrast to Judge Judy which I can’t begin to guess how many episodes I have seen.

Divorce Court is a totally different animal from Judge Judy.  To me, it is almost not a court at all.  One memorable episode had two gay guys who were not in a romantic relationship or partnership but were nonetheless before Judge Toler to ask her to decide for them if they should be friends.  After long, rambling testimony by both of them, Judge Toler “ruled” that she could not make a decision because she could not understand what the problem was.

More recently, I saw a few minutes of a Divorce Court in which a couple were asking Judge Toler if they should get married.  The man even played a guitar, or some type of stringed instrument, as part of his “testimony.”  I didn’t watch to see the “verdict.”

It seems to me that the trouble with Newburgh is that our government lives in the land of Divorce Court, and not in the land of Judge Judy.  Sure, we might have a Mayor Judy, but she bears no resemblance to Judge Judith Sheindlin.  Our government meetings are free-form, as is our city, where procedures are optional and the analytical is ignored for the most part, if it is even understood.  Instead we have hot, emotional rows among council members and sometimes the council and the public.  And then there are those who seek out fights for whatever reason, who do irreparable harm in their wake.  Those who know there is a problem, but they ignore it, I don’t know why, stupidity is not even the reason.

Other cities, villages and towns are able to conduct themselves with more decorum and follow procedures.  Not Newburgh.  No.  We are forever doomed to hear long, rambling stories in which we can’t even come up with a verdict on what they are about.