Mayor Shayne Gallo has directed a city official to audit all grants managed by Parks & Recreation Department employee Steve Noble, who’s battling Gallo for the Democratic Party nomination for mayor.
Gallo said June 24 the examination was prompted by “serious concerns” that by failing to file key documents, Noble had exposed the city to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fiscal liability. But Noble claims the controversy has been concocted by Gallo and his supporters as a political ploy ahead of September’s Democratic primary.
The issue began in May when Beth Hanigan, president of the Junior League of Kingston, wrote to Gallo expressing concern over the recently completed Kinderland II project at Forsyth Park. The league had obtained a grant for the project and partnered with Parks & Rec to build the new playground using volunteer labor. The league raised money for the project with the understanding that it would be reimbursed from the state grant. On May 5, Hanigan wrote Gallo to complain that Noble, who along with Parks & Recreation boss Kevin Gilfeather were designated project managers on the grant, had failed to inform the league of key provisions in the grant. According to Hanigan, Noble never told them about the need to follow state-mandated procurement polices, accurately track volunteer hours and other key provisions.
“Looking back on the last few months, I realize that the lack of progress with respect to the grant was due, in large measure it seems, to Steve Noble’s inattention to the details of obtaining and administering the grant,” Hanigan wrote.
Gallo said the missing documentation prompted him to direct city economic development chief and head grant writer Gregg Swanzey to go back and examine not just the Kinderland II grant, but a series of grants administered by Noble and other Parks& Rec employees dating back to the administration of Mayor James Sottile. In a prepared statement, Gallo mentioned grants awarded in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Besides the Kinderland II grant, Gallo’s statement made no mention of grants awarded during his own administration.
Swanzey, meanwhile, said this week that he had already turned up a number of inaccuracies or omissions in the grants. Many, he said, involved proper documentation of time put in by city departments as an “in-kind match” for various grants. Swanzey said that while grant writers can simply write “in kind” on grant forms, they are also expected to maintain certified time sheets to prove to an auditor that the work was done. Swanzey said that in several instances those time sheets had not been filed.
City Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben, who is working with Swanzey on the audit, said this week some of the missing records involve a fishing pier that the city got a grant for but was never built. The grant document claims that the city’s Department of Public Works put in 97 hours of work on the project. DPW staffers have been unable to find any evidence of work carried out on the never-built pier, according to Zweben, Gallo and Swanzey. Swanzey said he was also concerned that Noble may have “double dipped” by using the same hours of his time as in-kind matches for multiple projects.
“Basically what he was saying was OK, we did it, but it’s not documented and frankly in some cases it’s hard to see how it could be a truthful representation,” said Swanzey. “Maybe the intention was, ‘Let’s just do what we have to do to get the money.”
Pulling a C-Rea?
But Noble and his supporters see a nakedly political motive in the probe. Noble said he saw in the attack a pattern similar to that involving suspended former Assistant Fire Chief Chris Rea. Gallo suspended Rea back in 2012, but failed to file formal disciplinary charges against him until months later after Rea filed a lawsuit. An actual disciplinary hearing was not held until last year. Rea’s dismissal remains tied up in court.
“You’d think he would have learned his lesson,” said Noble this week. “If he had facts to back up what he’s saying he should be filing disciplinary charges against me so that I can respond,” said Noble. “Instead it’s all this wishy-washy stuff trying to make me look bad.”
Noble said that he had informed members of the Junior League of the requirement to log volunteer hours. He added that in his 10 years of employment by the city he had managed some $2.5 million in grants and had never been disciplined, demoted or otherwise sanctioned for poor performance. Noble also said his grant work took place in partnership with other city officials and department heads, including Swanzey — none of whom, said Noble, had ever expressed concern about his work.
“Then I announce that I’m running for mayor and suddenly I’m an incompetent employee,” said Noble.
Noble said a press release issued by Gallo last week asking Kinderland volunteers to certify their time on the project and blaming poor oversight by Parks & Rec staff for the inconvenience amounted to political mudslinging on city time.
Dunn: Looks like a smear campaign
Council Majority Leader Matt Dunn, who supports Noble, said the issue of Noble’s grants had all the hallmarks of a political smear campaign. Dunn said Gallo has frequently sought to use the power of his office to punish opponents or damage their reputations.
“This is just Gallo being Gallo,” said Dunn. “We’ve seen this story before.”
Gallo vehemently denied any political motive behind the examination of Noble’s grant writing activities. Instead, Gallo said, he was trying to protect city taxpayers from having to pay up to $200,000 in the event poor record-keeping prevents grant issuers from reimbursing the city for projects like Kinderland II that have already been finished and paid for. As for disciplinary charges, Gallo said that he would wait until Swanzey’s probe was complete before deciding how to proceed.