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Who will decide on county’s ag specialist – and who will it be?

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — November 19, 2010 — Sullivan County Manager David Fanslau’s near-$191 million tentative 2011 county budget does include provision for an agriculture economic development specialist.
But unlike with Paul Hahn, who left that position for another job earlier this year, it isn’t listed as an in-house county position – even though the county had been soliciting resumés in recent weeks.
Instead, Fanslau has set aside $50,000 to hire an independent contractor to take over a role of significant importance and interest to the county’s diverse agricultural community.
“A county employee would add the costs of health benefits and employer pension contribution, along with employer taxes,” Fanslau explained of the decision to seek an individual or agency outside of county government.
“If this line were to be adopted as recommended, a Request For Proposals [RFP] would be generated through the Purchasing Department in compliance with the county procurement policy,” he added. “The ‘contractor or contract agency’ would perform the duties under the supervision of the Planning Commissioner [Luiz Aragon].”
But that idea was tabled several weeks ago by legislators, after hearing from residents who were concerned about the man being considered, Marc Baez.
Baez, a county resident himself, runs a consulting firm called Baez Associates and once served as the president of the Partnership for Economic Development.
Fanslau and Aragon approached Baez to consider submitting a proposal, which he did.
But as legislators neared making a decision, concerns were aired at county meetings and in letters to officials, including one signed by nearly 150 residents against Baez’s hiring.
Based on research by Empire Zone Administrative Board member Eileen Haworth Weil, Baez was never properly appointed to the Empire Zone board. Yet in his four years on that board (concurrent with his Partnership presidency), he voted on major items like naming the Concord and Ideal Snacks projects “regionally significant,” entitling them to tax breaks and other special benefits.
Another county resident, Dave Colavito, took issue with Baez’s study for the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) on the feasibility of a creamery. Colavito questioned Baez’s findings and methodology, though IDA CEO Allan Scott said Baez had satisfactorily completed the study.
Colavito said he was not attacking Baez personally, but shortly thereafter legislators dropped plans to at least temporarily replace Hahn with a contracted agency.
Baez issued a written reply defending his actions, but he now may be out of the running – of his own accord.
“If they’re doing another RFP, I wouldn’t venture down that road again,” Baez confirmed this week, noting that he didn’t seek out the original RFP and is satisfied working with individual farming clients and the IDA’s various agricultural initiatives.
However, he did say that he’d be up for further discussion if legislators expressed interest in his original proposal.
Here’s what legislators had to say about filling the agricultural specialist position:
• Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis said the Legislature is committed to getting someone into that position.
What he feels is now needed is a “clearer voice” from the ag. community, rather than the sometimes disparate messages emanating from Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Farm Bureau, the Farm Network and the array of farmers themselves.
As for Baez, Rouis would only speculate that the tabling of Baez Associates’ involvement in the open position will likely remain tabled.
“I don’t foresee it being revisited,” he acknowledged.
• Legislature Vice Chairman Elwin Wood is “100 percent” in favor of having a specialist on board, and as chairman of the IDA’s board, he’s appreciative of Baez’s credentials and acumen.
“I really think Marc is getting an unfair shake,” Wood said.
Though he hasn’t made up his mind on outside contractor vs. in-house employee, Wood affirmed the job “is one of the most important positions for agriculture.”
“We are just trying to think out of the box,” he explained. “... I want it to be the right person for the right job.”
• Majority Leader Kathy LaBuda, however, shares Weil and Colavito’s concerns about Baez.
“As a taxpayer and a legislator, if someone gets up and makes accusations ... and those are true – which they are – how could I vote for that person?” she remarked. “... That’s why I moved to table it.”
She is in favor of filling the position, though she’d rather it be decided by Aragon and the farmers than the Legislature itself.
• Minority Leader Leni Binder noted that legislators will have to abide by the rules for RFPs, meaning that the county’s procurement policy must be followed, rather than personal preference.
“We may have to go back and redefine what we’re looking for,” she acknowledged – for example, requiring direct experience in an agricultural industry (which would not exclude Baez, as much of his childhood was spent assisting his grandfather on his Puerto Rico farm).
Though unsure if she prefers a contractor over a county employee, “I know I want the position filled,” said Binder. “I think it’s critical.”
• Legislator David Sager’s district includes much of the county’s cropland and farms, and he’s adamant that Baez is not the man for the job, based on Weil and Colavito’s concerns.
He wants someone who will “embrace the entire agricultural community.”
“Traditional farming is changing,” said Sager. “There are a lot of niche markets that are underrepresented.”
• Legislator Frank Armstrong also represents a district full of agricultural enterprises, and he agrees with Sager that “the farming community needs to have a seat at the table.”
With a farming background himself, Armstrong is the one legislator who is strongly considering having farmers alone choose the specialist they want to work with, rather than anyone at the county level.
“We are all kind of struggling to get somewhere,” he observed. “... We need someone who is 100 percent involved in bringing to fruition what is evident.”
In fact, Armstrong is mulling the possibility of having the ag. community hire, perhaps even pay, their own specialist.
“We’re asking government to be the splice between the people who are raising products and the people who are consuming them,” he explained. “I’m not sure that’s the right place to be doing it.”
As for Baez, Armstrong felt it inappropriate to comment on a specific person.
• Legislator Ron Hiatt is as insistent as his colleagues that the specialist job needs a warm body, and quickly.
He’s open to suggestions from anyone: county officials, residents, farmers.
But he won’t discount Baez.
“I draw no conclusions about his capabilities,” Hiatt remarked. “I am not prejudiced against Baez because of what anyone said.”
• Legislator Alan Sorensen is also a firm believer in hiring someone.
“But I’m not going to speak about a specific person,” he explained, saying he only wants to ensure the position is funded and is helmed by a qualified, experienced individual.
• Legislator Jodi Goodman wants more input from the farming community on who to put in the position, but she also has no problem with Baez.
“I support Marc,” she affirmed. “He’s a gifted young man in Sullivan County that had a slanderous campaign mounted against him.
“I think people need to recognize excellence when sometimes we don’t agree on projects,” she added. “He should be given a chance to stand on his merits.”

*** Editor's Note: This clarification was published in the November 26, 2010 edition: In the Friday, November 19 edition, an article titled “Who will decide on county’s ag. specialist – and who will it be?” (Page 1A) referred to research conducted by Summitville resident and Empire Zone Administrative Board (ZAB) member Eileen Haworth Weil, indicating former Partnership for Economic Development President Marc Baez had not been properly seated on the ZAB during his Partnership tenure earlier in the decade. Mr. Baez has disputed and continues to dispute this, noting that the lack of documentation does not mean the matter was handled improperly.
In its own research, the Democrat has been unable to find any documented record of his appointment to the ZAB, though records from that period of the Empire Zone’s existence are apparently not complete.
Mr. Baez’s Partnership predecessor, Michael Sullivan, was appointed to the ZAB by the County Legislature upon the Zone’s creation in 2001. That appointment, though specifically naming Mr. Sullivan, could be interpreted as applying to future Partnership representatives, as well. However, whether or not this was the Legislature’s actual intention remains unclear, and subsequent to Mr. Baez’s tenure, the ZAB did not feature an official Partnership representative.
To date, the Democrat has not found evidence of intentional wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Baez and makes no claims of such.

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