Hugh Reynolds: Tell it to the judge

There’s something to say for public officials testifying under oath in open court. It can be revealing.

When they took their case against the wording of the Family Court referendum to state Supreme Court last week, Ulster County legislators Dave Donaldson and John Parete knew their chances were slim. Their contention that the ballot wording to move Family Court from Uptown Kingston to the Business Resource Center just over the Town of Ulster was at once persuasive (“the thumb of government on the scales”) and misleading (promises of tax savings and convenience). But their attorney, Dan Heppner, saw a glimmer of hope.

“It will take a lot of courage for the judge to rule our way,” Heppner said before the verdict came in. “Maybe she’ll split the baby.” (Colleagues consider the erudite Heppner one of the leading Biblical scholars among Kingston attorneys.)

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The judge, Denise Hartman, was sympathetic. She found the lengthy, booster-like wording of the referendum a bit over-the-top. All things considered — military ballots with the original wording had already gone out — she ruled the plaintiffs didn’t make their case that the wording was “misleading.”

Heppner didn’t go down without a fight. Donaldson was impressed by his golf partner-lawyer’s hastily gathered research. “He found stuff we never could find,” he marveled.

Under incessant prodding by the plaintiffs’ (pro bono) attorney, it was revealed that the county had building options it might have more seriously considered. One was an offer a few years ago from the present owners of the county-leased Family Court facility on Lucas Avenue to sell it for some $8 million. No wonder the county went looking elsewhere. But now it’s reportedly on the market for $2.5 million.

It is understood it might take thrice that amount to expand the former auto-repair garage and to add enough parking to bring it up to strict state standards. There is of course the added bonus of keeping Family Court within the City of Kingston.

According to records from the county finance department, the county has paid the Lucas Avenue building owners almost $1.2 million on a triple-net lease since 2014. Pass-through city taxes (the county doesn’t pay taxes to itself) amounted to about $100,000 a year. Sweet deal for the owners.

Also revealed in court testimony were the rapidly escalating estimates on what it may cost to convert vacant space at the county-owned former Business Resource Center into a courthouse. The legislature had bought the original $8 million estimate from the administration. Sworn testimony in court revealed a figure now close to $10 million. And they haven’t driven a nail yet.

At this rate, assuming the public votes in favor, the final cost might be … who knows? In for a dime, in for a dollar is standard practice when renovating old buildings.

Donaldson and Parete lost the battle — three times, actually — but will soldier on, creating doubt and suspicion in the public mind.

Look for a sharp counter-attack from ballot proponents before final judgment on November 8. After all, the high court did uphold the wording, however reluctantly.

 

Sleeping with the enemy

As any bureaucrat knows, there are about three ways to deal with budget cuts. Take your medicine, shift some money around in your budget, or go out and find new revenues. County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, after his department budget was proposed to be reduced two bodies in County Executive Mike Hein’s budget plan, is trying the latter option.

In a memo to the legislature, which is currently reviewing Hein’s proposed 2017 budget, Auerbach reintroduces his idea of taxing the burgeoning “who’s that guy in our spare bedroom?” i.e., Airbnb trade. Auerbach projects a “conservative” $200,000 in fresh taxes, more than enough to offset the $120,000 Hein proposes to hack out of his $625,000 budget.

Auerbach’s chances aren’t terrific in the Hein-controlled legislature, but who knows? After huffing and puffing for two months or so, the legislature typically adjusts the executive budget by less than 1 percent, about $300,000 in this budget. There will be plenty of other agencies competing for those crumbs, but so far the comptroller is the only one to publicly offer offsetting revenue.

 

Strange days indeed

They’re calling it the strange case of Sara McGinty, but could it be decisive in the election for county surrogate judge?

It has come to public attention that McGinty, the Democratic candidate for judge against two challengers, was reprimanded by a judicial panel eight years ago for misuse of a client’s escrow fund. Holy Donald Trump! Finding the Rosendale lawyer did not act in a “venal” manner or for personal gain, the panel ordered a one-year suspension of her law license and told her to get her books in order. McGinty characterized the incident as “little more than postage.”

Taking McGinty at her word, and no one has refuted it, raises the question of why the Committee on Professional Conduct brought the case in the first place. Not to dismiss escrow comingling, but surely they had bigger fish to fry.

That the committee’s finding was of consequence was apparent, though not confirmed by the ruling of another review panel. The Independent Judicial Elections Qualifications Commission last week found McGinty “Not Qualified” for the post she seeks.

Given that virtually any practicing lawyer with a pulse is almost always found “Qualified” for judicial office, McGinty’s negative rating came as a distinct surprise. Even hoary old journalists like me could remember only two or three such instances in the past 40 years or so. Almost as rare are candidates judged “Highly Qualified.”

As it should be, McGinty’s professional reprimand is a matter of public record, but only to a point. Did the second review panel take its lead from the first, eight years ago?

A spokesperson refused comment. They only issue ratings, he said. They do not detail the reasons. My argument that those ratings, clearly meant to influence the electorate, could play a crucial role in this judicial election failed to budge the spokesman. This is a system in need of reform.

While she hasn’t put it up on billboards or Facebook, McGinty, I am told, made no secret of her brush with professional-conduct watchdogs. Several sources confirm that she raised the subject while campaigning for the Democratic nomination among town committees this spring and summer.

Speaking to “a painful chapter from almost a decade ago,” McGinty told us, “I learned from it and it informs my practice to this day.”

It also informs the voters, and therein lies the rub.

“What’s most obvious,” gloated county GOP Chairman Roger Rascoe in cutting to the chase, “is that Peter Matera [his man] is the only candidate in this race who has been judged ‘Qualified.’” I can almost hear the presses running off those Matera flyers right now.

Given his duty to stand by all party candidates, Rascoe’s opposite number, Democratic Chairman Frank Cardinale, took a curious stance. Claiming ignorance of the details surrounding his candidate’s situation — ignorance being a cardinal sin in politics — Cardinale said it would be “irresponsible” on his part to comment.

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Not to speak for the closed-mouth chairman, but Cardinale must appreciate that McGinty is the only Democrat on the ballot with a realistic chance of being elected surrogate judge on Nov. 8.

Well, there is another. Sharon Graff, an enrolled Democrat only since last October — she lost the primary to McGinty in light voting — reminds her supporters she carries the banners of the Working Families, Independence and Women’s Equality parties. It is doubtful that a third-party candidate; even with three lines, can be much more than a spoiler in what is shaping up as a close election. But a spoiler she might be.

Republican Matera, a thoroughly credible candidate with four lines of his own, can afford to sit back and play the cards dealt to him.

McGinty does have at least one thing going for her — the tsunami of Democratic voters about to flood the polls this year to vote all over again for Hillary Clinton. Many, in congenital revulsion to anything Republican, will go right down the line, either not knowing McGinty at all or caring less about some obscure, minor incident that happened almost a decade ago only to resurface a month before the election.

But the needle has moved. Unsinkable Sara may not be dead in the water, as some Republicans predict, but she’s definitely treading.

 

Of lions and lambs

I’m advised by sources in the room of a high-level (secret) meeting between Catskill Mountain Railroad operatives and Hein administration honchos at the County Office Building last week. Himself (Hein) did not attend — he usually shows up only to dictate terms — but I’m told there was enough brass there to start a band. Plenty of toot-toots, too. Hands across the conference table did not produce any promises, but there were at least some meetings of minds.

Central to the thaw in relations is the upcoming November-December Polar Express. The Express drew thousands of visitors to Kingston and its environs last year. Merchants, not to mention pajama-clad kids, would storm the county’s cube at Fair and Main if petty politics derailed the holiday trains this year.

Progress in this administration is measured in curious ways. For years, the administration refused to communicate with the railroad. Now it is doing so, though one meeting may not a marriage make.

And we thought Hein had run these folks out of town.

 

Here and there

Ulster County Democrats will hold their annual dinner at the Chateau in Kingston on Sunday, Oct. 30, beginning with cocktails at 5 p.m. Tickets start at $90 per head.

Republicans will forego their annual dinner in this presidential year when interest in politics tends to peak. “There’s just so much money go around. We’ve got candidates running for state and county office. How much can you tap contributors?” explained party boss Rascoe.

Ah, but Dem boss Cardinale knows regular gatherings of true believers, be they spring brunches or autumn dinners, serve to reinforce party spirit, rally the troops, flush out donors and replenish party coffers, encourage candidates and maybe sign up a few recruits. It’s more than just an expensive meal.

Off-season down-ballot races don’t draw much attention, even when candidates conduct spirited campaigns. In Kingston, one might think there’s a real race for city judge, what with large lawn signs for Democrat incumbent Phil Kirschner popping up around town. But there isn’t. He’s running unopposed for a second 10-year term. A nice turnout would indicate confidence in him, and perhaps give Kirschner a leg up on a higher judgeship down the line.

In my never-ending quest for cheap, interesting entertainment, I pass on the news of the D&H Canal Society’s five-locks walk this Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. at High Falls Square. The $15 suggested donation includes “fine wines” from Tim and Laurel Sweeney’s Stone Ridge Wine and Spirits plus appetizers, according to organizers.

Speaking of local history, an old-timer who shall remain unnamed, has been bugging me for months about Alexander Hamilton once living in a stone house south of Kingston. I’ve tapped all my sources to no avail. If anyone else has a clue — perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda turned up something in his research? — please pass it on.

There is one comment

  1. Isthatright

    When it comes to the Railroad being run out of town, You got it half right. Trains will no longer run in Phoenicia at the end of this month. Sad, considering over 4000 people came to ride the fall foliage train in just the past 2 weekends.

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