Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dirty politics

Land is, by definition, dirty, and it's generally accepted that money doesn't mix easily with politics. So when there's a suspicion of shady land dealings by elected officials, it's fair to call it "dirty politics."

The scenario:  New Paltz Town Supervisor Susan Zimet and council member Kevin Barry had a meeting with schools superintendent Maria Rice, to discuss how the district could solve its facilities problems by expanding the high school campus.  I'm told that Rice claims that Zimet and Barry initiated the meeting, but that they disagree and claim it was Rice's idea.

The problem:  Barry owns a tract of land adjacent to the high school property, and could stand to gain if the district took his suggestion, and also decided that buying his land was the best way to do so.  Barry did disclose being a part owner of the parcel on this town financial disclosure form, and has voluntarily agreed not to sell it while in office.

The analysis:  I've been reviewing information about the underlying state ethics rules, and it seems pretty clear that Barry has created an "appearance of impropriety," which means that it looks like he's up to something.  Obviously, his promise not to sell while in office simply means he could resign if he got a good enough offer.  Or transfer his interest in a way that wouldn't legally be considered a sale, but would still allow him to profit.

But despite there being an appearance of impropriety, I don't believe that there's been an ethics violation.  Since an appearance of impropriety exists, Barry should recuse himself on this issue.  But it's not a town issue, so it will never come up.  In fact, even if Barry were actively trying to convince the district to buy his land, I don't think it would be an ethics violation, because his personal interest (selling the land) does not in any way conflict with his public interest (the residents and taxpayers of the town), at least not in the direct ways that the law requires.

There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Barry's behavior in this case, but so far as I can tell he's done his homework, and hasn't done anything wrong in the law's eyes.  As I like to say, and all attorneys know, if you want to be able to wriggle out of something, make sure to put it in writing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Kerr innocent of pot charges

At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Don Kerr said of the news that a grand jury will not indict him, "I don't feel exonerated, because I never felt onerated in the first place."

It may be hard to swallow for some people, but this means that Kerr is innocent, because under our system of justice, innocence is presumed unless guilt is proven.  The grand jury who reviewed testimony in this case didn't find that there was enough evidence to even bring a case against Kerr, which falls very far short of guilt indeed.

When the story of Kerr getting arrested for accepting a package containing eight pounds of pot first surfaced, a client of mine was quick to condemn him, and when I pointed out that it's best to let the courts, rather than gossip, try to convict him, I probably went too far, because I have never worked for that client again.

That we, the highly educated and progressive citizens of New Paltz, are so quick to throw the rights of another human being under the bus sickens me.  This community is rife with hypocrisy.

One man whom Kerr singled out to thank, and whom is not guilty of such hypocrisy in this case, is Martin McPhillips.  "I don't know the man, and apparently he doesn't like me, but he stood and and said something doesn't smell right here, and I appreciate that."

At the core of this story is the fact that our federal government provides incentives to police for drug offenses, whether or not they are violent.  There are no laws which allow for the seizure of assets from a man who beats his kids, or a woman who writes bad checks.  Our elected officials don't lose their ill-gotten gains if they're caught with a hand in the cookie jar.  But drug offenses are big money for law enforcement.

Kerr was quick to praise the New Paltz police for its professionalism in this case, and I certainly agree with his assessment.  However, I'd like to see our town take a stand and reject this unbalanced incentives, and instead focus on crimes that matter.  Violent crimes.  Crimes which cause the loss of life, liberty, or property.  Abuse.  Driving under the influence.  Graffiti.  Theft.  Vandalism.  Not all drug offenses are dangerous crimes, and not all dangerous crimes are drug offenses.  Let's start focusing on the stuff that matters, instead of targeting a man who did a damned fine job as school board president.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Now is not the time for village raises

I won't be able to attend the village board meeting tonight, but I've given it some thought and I don't believe it's appropriate to be putting raises for our elected officials in the next budget.

What I do believe is that costs go up, and the jobs have gotten more demanding.  Having a discussion about those salaries is probably long overdue.  For the mayor's position, this also entails whether or not we need a full-time mayor.

However, each of our five representatives ran for office well aware of the salary that came with the job.  Being sworn in, in my mind, carries the moral weight of signing a contract.  In this case, they are four-year contracts, with both duties and compensation spelled out.  They knew what the job would take, and how much it would pay, and they agreed to do that job, for four years, two in the case of Stewart Glenn.

If Mr. Glenn, or Ariana Basco, Sally Rhoads, or Jason West believed these positions were underpaid (and they may well be), the time to discuss it was when they were running for office a year ago.  I don't recall Mr. West or Ms. Basco mentioning it when they visited my home, nor did Ms. Rhoads or Mr. Glenn mention the salaries during the campaign, to my knowledge.

So instead of slipping in a pay raise in a year during which no one is running for office, I would like to see an open discussion about compensation, with an understanding that any raises be put into place such that they start at the beginning of a new term.  Yes, that means any incumbents who are running will have to justify those increases, which is entirely appropriate.

There are lots of reasons to increase pay for our elected officials.  Slipping it by during the low point of the accountability cycle is not the way to do it.  If the arguments are good, they will stand up under full public scrutiny.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New Paltz school land vote

Today, New Paltz voters get a chance to decide if the schools will be able to buy some land.  Community sentiment seems largely against the project, and some of the details I've learned today give me pause, while others really clear things up in my mind.

First, the bad.  Whether the reasons for speed are good ones or not, this thing is moving too fast for people to digest it.  Yes, most people prefer to vote uninformed, but they rely on those few who pay attention, and many of those are voting no because they don't know enough.

A real estate broker I know wonders about the soil test on this parcel, which was an orchard, I believe.  Normally, she tells me, soil tests happen before the contract is signed, but in this case it's to be part of the contract.  That makes her nervous, and me too.  I don't know what happens if it turns out to be contaminated.

Another of my friends, a student at the high school, pondered instead using the capital reserve fund for middle school renovations.  I think I can answer that, but first let me explain where this money is coming from.

The capital reserve fund was authorized by voters in 2005 -- the board can sock away up to $5 million for projects like renovating the middle school, although the most they've saved is $1.2 million.  This is money not used in past years, for things like snow plowing, which the voters told them it's okay to save, rather than giving back to us.  In my estimation, this is democratic (we voted), transparent (we know what it can be used for), and conservative (they can eliminate borrowing costs by spending money they have rather than money they don't have).

So why not the middle school?  I'm thinking they don't have enough money to begin to fix those problems, and they're looking to a future without that building.  I don't know that I like that attitude, but the community has spoken pretty loudly in the past.

The rationale behind the land grab is to allow for consolidation, building new near Lenape and pulling back from the middle school.  It could make for a leaner district.  Voting no won't get that money back, because we already told them they could take it.  I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to vote no, but that's not one of them.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Are you voting April 10?

The school district's special vote to allow the purchase of land is coming up.  I think the paper has done a pretty good job of laying out the reasons why they want to spend this money in this way right now, but from the letters and what people are telling me, either people aren't understanding or they really just don't agree.

From what I understand, this land purchase would be made with money the district already has, but can't use -- it's a reserved fund balance.  The first question on the ballot will be to take care of the accounting, and allow the money to be used on real estate.  The second actually gives them the green light to do it.

The board believes that this is the best way to give the community what it wants.  More land will allow the district to consolidate by adding buildings there, replacing the decrepit middle school.  That addresses the safety concerns of that old building, or at least opens the door to doing so, and it does it with money that can't be used to save teaching jobs or programs.

I think this is about communication more than anything else.  I don't think this is a case of the board overreaching, but they are definitely hellbent to go through with this despite the strong negative reaction provided in their survey.  Yes, a lot of land will come off the tax rolls.  Down the line, maybe that prime middle school property will be put back on.

What do you think the tax consequences will be in the short and long runs?  If you're voting, would you be willing to share your reasons for your vote?