Last week, Ulster County’s executive branch launched another blitz on the Catskill Mountain Railroad, apparently aimed at convincing the legislative branch of the merits of the county’s increasingly expensive legal battle to break its lease with the CMRR. Sources from inside the rare closed-door session where lawmakers were briefed indicated the effort might have been counterproductive.
Since legislators are not allowed to discuss issues presented in executive session — usually limited by law to personnel, contracts and litigation — names have been omitted to protect those who still believe the public has a right to know what its elected leaders are doing.
The only hint of something afoot was a cryptic sentence at the end of the ninth page of the legislature’s June agenda, to wit: “Executive session with county attorney [Bea Havranek] to discuss litigation.”
A year ago, the county formally notified CMRR of alleged failure to meet the terms of its 1991 lease and moved for summary judgment to have the lease voided. The 25-year lease expires in May 2016. The county seeks to create a walking trail along the old Ulster & Delaware Railroad’s 38-mile right of way from Kingston to Highmount.
CMRR, which has repaired about five miles of track for its tourist trains in two sections, one between Kingston and Hurley and the other between Mount Tremper and Phoenicia, sued the county to maintain its lease. It is one of the ironies in this increasingly bitter dispute that the county, the instigating litigant, is legally speaking the defendant (victim?) in the case, something the county attorney pointed out to legislators in closed-door session. A state Supreme Court judge, after rejecting the county’s petition last summer, will hear the case in November.
As it turned out, Havranek’s one-sided presentation of legal issues was only the icing on a carefully baked cake. Preceding the county attorney, in public session and unannounced, was a half-hour slide show of railbed and bridge degradation by the executive branch’s rail-trail project manager Chris White. In fairness to White, assigned by County Executive Mike Hein to pursue the county’s interests, his slide show was taken from a Boston-based engineering consultant’s report presented to legislators a week before their regular session.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, more so a series of detailed, up-close slides showing deteriorating track running over washed-out roadbeds, rotting ties, litter, overgrown foliage, plugged culverts and, in particular, scary close-up views of the recently repaired bridge near Route 209 in Hurley. And if the narrator didn’t mention that much of this damage was caused by once-in-a-century storms in 2011, oh, well.
Some slack-jawed legislators were obviously dismayed. Also left unsaid was that no train has run on those sections of track in almost 40 years and repairs have been carried out in only a few places. Further left unsaid was that Hein has been withholding federal funding to repair storm-damaged tracks near Phoenicia for almost three years. The purpose of this presentation was not to afford legislators a balanced, objective overview, but, like prosecuting and defending attorneys do, to argue one side of the case.
Lots of money for lawyers
Legislators, acting as a kind of grand jury, had questions of their own.
The county, in doggedly pursuing this legal action, has spent upwards of $75,000, perhaps $100,000, as has the railroad. County legal expenses, paid by the public to an Albany law firm, have been cleverly kept from public view by limiting individual payments to less than $50,000. Anything over that charter-designated threshold has to go through the legislature.
The sense of the legislature, from what I could gather, was that the county has thrown enough money at this problem, considering that the lease expires anyway in 22 months.
Perhaps inadvertently, White’s graphic presentation raised another far more serious issue with legislators.
By now, everyone, including railroaders, understands that a small group of volunteers will never be able to raise the tens of millions of dollars it would take to restore some 33 miles of railroad track. From White’s presentation, some drew the conclusion that it could also take millions to create a safe, accessible walking trail along the right-of-way. And who’s going to pay for that? The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has pledged $2.5 million to create a walking trail on the section of tracks in city-owned land along the Ashokan, an amount that might cover engineering and design fees.
The railroaders, after going toe to toe with Mighty Mike for more than a year, were unusually reticent on this report. For the record, they’ll say only that they’re working to address some of its findings. Apparently, lawyers have interceded.
Tracksters, on the defensive since Hein sought to void their lease last year, could take heart that the legislature is at least raising questions as to how the executive has proceeded. It may be that Ulster County government is not a one-man show after all.
More light could be shed from both sides when the newly appointed all-legislature railroad advisory committee meets in its first official session on Wednesday, July 2 at 5 p.m.
Here come the judges
Say what you will about sales-tax crisis Kevin Cahill, the boy does have clout in Albany. At the close of this year’s state legislative session, Cahill announced the creation of not one but two local judgeships.
Establishing a long-sought third county Family Court judgeship has been in the hopper for at least a couple of decades, even as the problems of overcrowding and burgeoning caseloads grew worse in this court closest to the people. That this new-found plum will create a feeding frenzy at the local bar is a foregone conclusion.
There are of course pros and cons. Among judicial posts, Family Court is the pits — heartaches by the dozen, troubles by the score, and few easy or simple solutions. It’s a place where human misery washes to shore.
The extremely truncated campaign season will be a challenge. Legislation creating the new judgeships (Dutchess gets one, too) provides for an extra week (to about mid-July) for candidates to collect the necessary signatures on nominating petitions. A minimum of 5 percent of those who voted for gubernatorial candidates in the last election is required. Assuming there’s a contest, this being the only chance downtrodden Republicans will have to elect a new judge in the next decade, viable candidates will need to raise something well over $150,000, and in a hurry.