Officials tangle over $1 land deal

HUDSON—In a brief discussion this week the county Board of Supervisors Economic Development Committee took up the issues raised by the land transaction between the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) and Ginsberg’s Food Service.

The CEDC has agreed to transfer 33 acres on Route 66 to Ginsberg’s for $1 so that the company can expand its food service business. But Ghent residents including Patti Matheney and Christine Jones attending the committee meeting brought to light that the county had paid $109,950 for the land in 1997, an amount not previously disclosed in public discussions of the deal.

In addition, David Crawford of Crawford & Associates, engineers, serves as president of the CEDC board while his firm represented Ginsberg’s in the site plan approval process.
Supervisor Art Baer (D-Hillsdale), a member of the county Economic Development Committee, had written to Andrew B. Howard, requesting a legal opinion regarding the ethics and legality of the land transfer. Mr. Howard is attorney for the CEDC.
Mr. Baer was out of town for the county committee’s meeting Monday, September 22, so he had asked Supervisor Art Bassin (D-Ancram), also a committee member, to read aloud Mr. Howard’s response.

“The CEDC Board of Directors discussed [Mr. Baer’s request] at their August 2014 meeting,” wrote Mr. Howard, “and was of the opinion that the request was overbroad and that a legal opinion was not warranted at this time.”

Nevertheless, he wrote, he would “provide some background.” The CEDC Board of Directors unanimously voted to approve the land transaction with Ginsberg’s at their July 29 meeting and that Mr. Crawford “recused himself from the discussion and vote on the proposed contract, as he had with all other discussion involving this transaction,” Mr. Howard wrote. Further, he said, his own firm has never represented Ginsberg’s.

Mr. Bassin continued by reading an email from Mr. Baer, who wrote that his request was for “a simple legal opinion. If they are compliant, then why are they not forthcoming? $400,000 per year is spent, in taxpayer dollars, but they won’t respond to an elected official.”

Supervisor Rob Lagonia (D-Austerlitz) wanted to know how the annual CEDC budget of $437,000 was spent.

The county distributes funds on a quarterly basis, said Kenneth Flood, executive director of the CEDC. “It’s all used for operations: personnel, office supplies, marketing, compliance.” He said the CEDC reports to the state Authorities Budget Office and other agencies and that those reports are public information.
If the county is spending that much money, asked Mr. Lagonia, does the CEDC answer to supervisors?

“They’re a vendor,” said Supervisor Patrick Grattan (R-Kinderhook), the chairman of the Board who chairs the Economic Development Committee. “The county has contracts with 500 vendors.”

“Do they have guidelines, a mission statement?” asked Supervisor Ellen Thurston (D-Ward 3, Hudson.)

“We have a contract with them,” said Mr. Grattan.

“And if they’re not operating under guidelines?” asked Ms. Thurston.

“Go to the state comptroller,” said Mr. Grattan. “The county doesn’t have oversight, as it wouldn’t with any vendor.”

Mr. Bassin asked Mr. Flood if he could shed any further light on the CEDC discussion of Mr. Baer’s request at the August meeting.

“No,” said Mr. Flood. “There wasn’t more discussion than that.”

“Mr. Howard is the attorney for the CEDC,” said Mr. Grattan. “As an attorney myself, I wouldn’t offer a legal opinion to a non-client.”

“But not getting an opinion makes you wonder, why not,” said Mr. Bassin. “There may be ethical or legal issues that the CEDC doesn’t want to state. That’s the inference you have to take.”

“Anyone who has a concern can go to the state comptroller,” said Mr. Grattan.

“But none of us has first-hand knowledge,” said Mr. Bassin.

“Then go to the corporation,” said Mr. Grattan, “to Sterling and Porecca.” Supervisors Sarah Sterling (D-Hudson, Ward 1) and John Porecca (R-Greenport) serve on the CEDC.
With that, the committee moved on to other business.

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