EDITORIAL: CEDC scandal gets worse

THINK ABOUT NORTH KOREAN justice. It’s an oxymoron. The guy with the comic book haircut has a bad day and suddenly a family member or toady becomes an enemy of the people and disappears. Very tidy.

Not here. Even in the post 9/11 world it’s odd to imagine a person just disappearing, especially a county bureaucrat. But something odd is afoot in Columbia County. We haven’t descended into a North Korean swamp of evil. But hey, what happened to Ken Flood?

Nobody suggests that physical harm has befallen Mr. Flood. But until the middle of last week he was the executive director of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC). Then, suddenly, the agency was looking for a new director. Mr. Flood was only a part-time employee at CEDC. He’s also commissioner of county planning and he apparently will keep that job. But as far as official pronouncements from CEDC, Mr. Flood has become a non-person; he’s been temporarily replaced by… a committee.

A little background helps to set the stage for this purge, referred to by the CEDC as its “reorganization plan.” It began with growling by neighbors when the CEDC agreed to sell 33 acres on the boundary between of Claverack and Ghent to Ginsberg’s Foods for $1. Ginsberg’s, a local company, plans to build a large warehouse facility there. The CEDC was also helping Ginsberg’s put together the financing.

The head of Ginsberg’s was on the CEDC board when the project was introduced but soon resigned from the agency. The same wasn’t true of David Crawford, head of the engineering firm Ginsberg’s was using. He became president of the CEDC board.

It later emerged that the CEDC paid $109,000 for the property two decades ago and site was recently valued at $280,000. That didn’t sit well with critics of the project and some of them asked the state Authorities Budget Office to apply the smell test to see whether there was a whiff of scandal.

Technically the CEDC is what’s called an authority, like the Bridge Authority and Thruway Authority. The CEDC was created by the county, and county taxpayers pay its operating costs of more than $400,000 per year. But as an independent authority, CEDC gets to determine its own policies and procedures. When the state Authorities Budget Office investigated, it found that the land deal was within the scope of the CEDC’s legal powers. But investigators also determined the behavior of four CEDC board members, Mr. Crawford among them, was potentially naughty in terms conflicts of interest.

But after all their sleuthing, the state investigators concluded that, Oh, well, the potential conflicts don’t really matter anyway. Why? Their answer was that nobody got harmed because the Ghent Planning Board had vetoed the Ginsberg’s project.

Apparently the Authorities Budget Office is unfamiliar with something we in the U.S.A. call the right of appeal. Ginsberg’s appealed the Ghent decision and a few weeks ago a judge sided with the company, ordering the town to issue Ginsberg’s a permit to build the warehouse. Does it matter more, now?

Maybe. The CEDC has suddenly decided that it must reorganize–immediately. And the first step is to make Mr. Flood a non-person. Ken who? But he did what the board asked him to. And you’d think that if the problem with the CEDC stemmed from its executive director, the state report would have identified his actions as another “potential” problem. Nope. The one thing he might have taken heat for–the $1 transfer of the property–got a clean bill of health.

If the CEDC board thinks tossing Mr. Flood overboard proves it has reformed, its members continue to inhabit the same bubble of cluelessness that precipitated this scandal. Hint: In trying to show that things are really different now, it doesn’t boost confidence to have someone identified with potential conflicts of interest serve on the committee now running the agency.

What’s worse, the county Board of Supervisors, which funds the CEDC, has refused to pay for an independent lawyer to review CEDC recent loans. Instead, two supervisors with no budget, subpoena powers or investigative staff have been delegated to do the job.

Neither the CEDC nor the supervisors can sort this out alone, no matter how well intentioned the effort. It will take the combined powers of the state attorney general and the state comptroller to clean up this mess. If the supervisors aren’t prepared to seek their help, we’ll know the problem doesn’t end with the CEDC.

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