Sullivan County Democrat
O n l i n e  E d i t i o n National Award-winning, Family-run Newspaper
  NEWS ARCHIVES Established 1891 Callicoon, New York  
home  |  archives

Dan Hust | Democrat

Jill Wiener of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy spoke to the Legislature Thursday about requiring public disclosures from contracted agencies.

Partnership’s drilling stance draws fire

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — July 20, 2010 — Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy (CCSE) took square aim at the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development at Thursday’s County Legislature meeting, and legislators are now seriously considering reworking their expectations of the Partnership.
“The Partnership, which has accepted over a quarter of a million dollars from the county in the last two years alone, has adopted a pro-gas drilling policy that appears to put it at odds with the policy of the county and, arguably, runs counter to the wishes of the people who live here,” said CCSE’s Bruce Ferguson.
He referenced the Partnership’s stated support of drilling as a potential economic benefit to the region, decrying both that stance and the agency’s plan to run an educational campaign about drilling.
“There is strong reason to believe that some Partnership board members are advancing a pro-drilling agenda because they stand to personally benefit if drilling comes to our area,” Ferguson added.
“Of course, if the Partnership were a government agency, rather than a government-funded entity, board members would be required to disclose conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from voting on issues that might personally enrich them,” he remarked.
“I’ve repeatedly sought information on such conflicts, to no avail – and this is one of the reasons I come before you today.”
Fellow CCSE member Jill Wiener agreed, adding another charge that “taxpayer money is being used to advance a pro-drilling agenda and the personal business interests of individuals who, I believe, are trading on the name and reputation of one of our most revered institutions – Cornell Cooperative Extension.”
She referenced a seminar at the Extension’s Liberty office about leasing land for gas drilling, run not by Extension staff or volunteers but by people who she claimed make money from leasing properties for drilling.
She felt the Extension’s Volunteer Code of Conduct had been violated and asked legislators to request an apology letter from the Extension to its members and the press “for this breach of the public trust.”
Rock Hill resident Dave Colavito, speaking as a taxpayer, urged the Legislature to require public disclosures of conflicts-of-interest when non-profit board members benefit from their agency’s activities.
“The enemy is not the Partnership or Cornell Cooperative Extension,” he said. “The enemy here is the secrecy around which public money is being spent.
“... If they’re talking about our money, I think they owe transparency.”
Neither the Partnership nor the Extension were represented at Thursday’s meeting.
When contacted yesterday, Cornell Cooperative Extension Family and Youth Development Team Coordinator Amanda Galigher Speer pointed out that the Extension’s mission statement requires it to be “a gateway to knowledge.”
“The workshop which was hosted here was a development of a [county] Planning Department suggestion and also in response to requests from the Sullivan County farm community,” she explained. “The program was fully sponsored by the Farm Bureau and the forum’s presenters. ... All aspects of the workshop were designed to be educational, thus ensuring that our county residents have the knowledge and frame of reference they need to make informed decisions.”
As for public disclosures, she replied, “CCE of Sullivan County will maintain transparency in our attempts to provide educational programs for county residents on gas drilling issues.”
Partnership President Tim McCausland had county staff hand out a response letter during Ferguson’s comments.
“In essence, Mr. Ferguson is not happy that the Partnership has adopted a policy that doesn’t match his personal feelings or opinions,” wrote McCausland.
“The Partnership policy on gas drilling – which, on its face, does not ‘actively promote gas drilling’ – is conditioned on whether ‘government and industry can collaborate to properly protect and preserve our natural resources,’” he continued, “which to us is much closer to the county’s policy that there should not be drilling until ‘potential environmental and economic impacts are identified and addressed’ than Mr. Ferguson would probably admit to.”
McCausland countered that the Partnership, as a private contract vendor with the county, is not subject to open meetings laws, Freedom of Information requests or other outside scrutiny.
“That has been how we’ve operated for 16 years, and our membership and the great preponderance of the public understands and respects that process,” he remarked.
He added, however, that since County Manager David Fanslau sits on the Partnership’s board, minutes, financial statements, bylaws and other info are available to the public through Fanslau’s office.
“Furthermore, to claim that our policy was created to advance the personal financial interest of certain individuals shows a lack of respect for the members of the board of directors,” McCausland stated.
It’s also flawed thinking, he said, using the example that if a watchmaker is attracted to the county through the Partnership’s efforts, it’s entirely expected that local businesses engaged in making parts for watches would benefit.
“We crafted a policy on casino gaming some years ago, and it was passed unanimously by our board,” McCausland concluded. “There was no one on our board from for-profit businesses who WOULDN’T have benefitted. Is that a conflict of interest? Again, that is why we are in business.”
But legislators seemed moved by Ferguson, Wiener and Colavito’s concerns, with Alan Sorensen noting that individual legislators have to file a financial disclosure statement annually.
“There should be a requirement for [Partnership] board members to have on file a financial disclosure statement,” he agreed, adding that the meeting minutes should be posted on the county’s website, and the chairman of the board should be a county resident.
“I don’t see why the public shouldn’t be entitled to this information,” said Legislator Ron Hiatt.
Legislators agreed the small size of the county means conflicts-of-interest are inevitable, but as David Sager put it, “there is an inherent obligation in the interest of transparency to disclose those conflicts.”
Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis reminded his colleagues that the Partnership’s main mandate from the county is to promote business and enhance economic development, but Sager countered that gas drilling could threaten tourism and agriculture, thus compromising that mandate.
“There are so many unknowns in this venture,” Rouis said.
County officials are now mulling altering contracts with private agencies to require financial disclosure forms, with a discussion anticipated at the Community and Economic Development Committee meeting on August 12.
Set for 9:15 a.m. in the Government Center in Monticello, it is open to the public.

top of page  |  home  |  archives