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A heated exchange

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — October 19, 2010 — The heated debate over consultant Marc Baez’s fitness for a county job found its way to the Legislature’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting on Thursday.
The topic was broached by Summitville resident Eileen Haworth Weil, who for years has faulted Baez for sitting on the local (now defunct) Empire Zone’s administrative board allegedly without going through proper procedure.
Weil had made such accusations at a legislative meeting the prior month, to which Baez had responded in writing.
“When I took over the Sullivan County Partnership [for Economic Development] in 2004, I received a call from the Zone Administrator at the time asking that I replace my predecessor’s seat on the Zone Board,” Baez wrote to Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis on October 4.
“I was not part of the governance activities or policymaking that took place at the time the board was created, nor do I recall any specific requirements made by the administrator or the county as the governing entity.”
Baez went on to note that he recused himself from any votes on Empire Zone projects whom he had recruited as Partnership president.
During Thursday’s meeting, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy’s Bruce Ferguson, a Callicoon Center resident, pointed out to legislators that Baez had not specifically asserted that he legally sat on the Empire Zone’s board.
“If Mr. Baez was legally appointed, his name should be cleared,” Ferguson wrote to Rouis on Thursday.
If not, Ferguson added, “then his long tenure on the Empire Zone Board violated the county code and he is not an acceptable candidate for any taxpayer-funded position or position of public trust.”
The Empire Zone program is no longer active, but Baez and his Bridgeville-based company, Baez Associates, are up for consideration to replace Paul Hahn, the county’s agricultural development specialist who recently left for another job.
As a result, Baez’s recent creamery study – which indicated such a venture would be challenging – has also been criticized and used to question his fitness to replace Hahn.
“Baez Associates did exactly what the IDA [Industrial Development Agency] charged them to do with the creamery study,” IDA CEO Allan Scott said in Baez’s defense. “... The IDA is totally satisfied with the work by Baez Associates.”
Some legislators, however, didn’t seem as sure. Legislator Leni Binder, in particular, said the reason an appointment to Hahn’s former post was tabled by the Legislature recently was because of the concerns aired about Baez.
Legislator Kathy LaBuda said the position will be filled, and Baez – who vigorously defended his integrity and professionalism in the letter to Rouis – is apparently still in the running.
But accusations continued, this time towards the Partnership itself, with Ferguson reading from a letter he wrote to Partnership Board Chairman Josh Sommers on Thursday.
In it, he doubted the Partnership’s website, which lists 190 members, calling that “a gross exaggeration.”
“Someone with inside knowledge claims that 49 businesses have stopped paying dues but are still listed as members,” Ferguson wrote.
He used that to argue that if the Partnership is not retaining dues-paying members, it should not expect to receive the same level of taxpayer funding every year.
Ferguson also wondered if outgoing Partnership President Tim McCausland received a bonus in addition to his $103,000 annual salary (last year, he did – totalling $5,000).
“I am also concerned that the Partnership continues to push a pro-fracking agenda that could negatively impact the health of Sullivan County residents and many sectors of our local economy,” said Ferguson.
Finally, he targeted Sommers, who operates a public relations company and, as a result, is a spokesperson for NYS Senator John Bonacic in his re-election campaign. Ferguson supports Bonacic’s opponent, County Legislator David Sager, who has taken a stricter stance with gas drilling than Bonacic.
“I believe it [the Partnership] would be better served by a chairman who has refrained from working as a political operative for political candidates,” Ferguson wrote.
McCausland and Sommers were present at Thursday’s meeting, and both responded.
“To my knowledge, no one’s asked me to remove them from our website,” McCausland stated, adding that the Partnership has “a dedicated effort to reclaim any members that have dropped off.”
Sommers admitted that the website should be updated, but “there’s nothing to hide with our membership.”
Currently, he said, the Partnership has just under 150 dues-paying members and has disclosed not just who they are but who is not current on their dues.
He pointed out that memberships are falling for nonprofit organizations across the region – a point Partnership Treasurer Larry Wolinsky said should not be used against the Partnership.
“If anyone doesn’t like what we’re doing,” Wolinsky remarked, “I’d highly encourage them to join the Partnership, run for the board and implement their policies.”
Callicoon Center resident and Catskill Citizens member Jill Wiener argued that some organizations, like the Sullivan County Visitors Association, are seeing their numbers climb.
But Binder interjected, “I think a witch hunt is unfair, and I’m beginning to see tones of that.
“... If we have a wound, let’s open it and clean it, but let’s not destroy an organization.”
Ferguson, however, replied that residents have a right to see that proper procedures are followed by individuals and corporations serving the public.
“That’s not debatable,” he remarked.
“I want transparency and the rule of law,” he concluded. “I should not have to fight for it.”

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