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Should Partnership, others disclose financial conflicts?

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — August 17, 2010 — The battle over financial disclosures and gas drilling resurfaced at the Legislature’s Community and Economic Development Committee meeting on Thursday.
Actually, it had already been discussed privately by legislators at a Steering Committee meeting the Tuesday before, with Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis stating the consensus was to require financial and other conflict-of-interest disclosures during individual negotiations with agencies with which the county contracts for services.
“To try to come up with a blanket, uniform umbrella poses to be cumbersome, at best,” Rouis explained.
The issue had been raised weeks before by Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy members Bruce Ferguson and Jill Wiener, who were back on Thursday to express their concerns over the drilling stance of the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development and the potential for Partnership members to profit.
“There should be enough disclosure so the public can tell if the [county’s] Code of Ethics is being adhered to,” Ferguson told legislators.
But some legislators felt that would simply lead to less volunteers applying for positions that are already time-demanding.
“It’s a thankless job,” noted Legislator Jodi Goodman, who felt such scrutiny of volunteers would be “inappropriate.”
Legislator Leni Binder added that conflicts-of-interest are inevitable.
“It’s a very small community,” she pointed out. “[We can’t] make it so prohibitive for people to volunteer.”
But Wiener volunteers with various county-minded groups, and she didn’t think it would be an issue.
“I wouldn’t find having financial disclosure as a burden,” she remarked.
But there was also the issue of the Partnership’s stance on gas drilling, which considers it a potentially advantageous industry to have in this economically depressed area.
“I think the Partnership is getting a little out of its league,” charged Ferguson.
“I believe we are the policymakers,” replied Goodman. “I see the Partnership’s position as an opinion.”
“We do not set policy,” affirmed Partnership Board Chairman Josh Sommers.
While he acknowledged to legislators that the Partnership is not against drilling, “we don’t want it if it’s going to pollute our drinking water.”
He bemoaned the fact that few people locally are talking about the potential economic benefits of drilling.
“And it’s not the mission of the county to prejudge a business,” added Binder, likening it to the casino controversy. “... We are just the people who will allow them to come in and direct them.”
Legislator David Sager, who’s mounted a campaign to unseat NYS Senator John Bonacic with fighting drilling as a key component of his platform, disagreed.
“They [the Partnership] have taken a very typically pro-drilling stance on an extremely, extremely controversial issue,” he told his colleagues. “I don’t know if that was very responsible.”
Sager fears irreparable harm could be done to the county’s tourism and agricultural industries if drilling comes to town.
“I think that needs to be seriously looked at,” he said. “... Everybody just takes the ‘aw, shucks’ approach. ... That needs to stop.”
Partnership President Tim McCausland then challenged Sager to reveal who he thinks has a conflict-of-interest on the Partnership’s board, but Sager said he did not want to get into that battle in public.
Binder and Sager subsequently squabbled over the evidence pertaining to the potential dangers of drilling, until Goodman brought it back to the conflict-of-interest discussion.
“It [the county] is small, David,” she said. “Basically if we did the genealogy, we’re all probably related!”
She said disclosures of such conflicts are ultimately personal decisions.
“We have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and really make the right decisions,” she remarked.
But Legislator Alan Sorensen felt that’s insufficient, arguing for a revamp of the county’s Code of Ethics which would include an ethics board and spell out disclosure requirements for anyone doing business with the county.
County Manager David Fanslau said the state itself is looking at something similar, though that legislation is currently stalled.
Rouis said the Legislature is very interested in conducting county business ethically, but he found it “extremely frightening” to contemplate the use of an ethics board as a political tool or bully pulpit.
Later in the day, however, Rock Hill resident Dave Colavito pushed for ethics reform at the local level, as well.
While he acknowledged conflicts-of-interest are unavoidable in such a small area, Colavito said county-funded agencies which don’t want to submit financial disclosures can “opt out” by not accepting county monies.
“We can’t have that accountability without sufficient transparency,” he argued.
Whether the Partnership is interested in giving up that funding stream wasn’t a topic of discussion Thursday, and legislators took no formal action.
Still, McCausland and Sager engaged in an animated discussion about the matter after the meeting.
At one point, McCausland told Sager that, for example, every banker who sits on the Partnership’s board is interested in gaining business from the companies the Partnership attracts to the county.
“Is that a conflict?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” replied Sager.

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