A county lawmaker says he’ll continue to pursue a complaint that county officials acted improperly when they sent out a taxpayer-funded mailing touting the virtues of a controversial ballot proposition, despite a finding by the district’s attorney’s office that the move did not involve “criminality.”
“Win, lose or draw, I’m not going away on this,” said county Legislator Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston) on Monday.
At issue is “Proposition One,” which will appear on the reverse side of paper ballots in tomorrow’s election. If approved, the ballot measure would allow the county to relocate Family Court from its current location at 16 Lucas Ave. in Uptown Kingston to the vacant county-owned Business Resource Center at One Development Court, off Ulster Avenue, in the Town of Ulster. The ballot is necessary to waive a state rule that courts must be located within the county seat. The county has been under pressure from state officials to add a courtroom to its Family Court since 2014 when a third judge was added.
A 2015 survey of potential sites by an outside consultant determined that the BRC would be the most convenient and cost effective solution. Donaldson and fellow legislator John Parete (D-Boiceville) have argued that the county never examined the economic impact of moving the court or gave due consideration to alternatives within city limits. They point to a 2014 proposal by architect Scott Dutton on behalf of 16 Lucas Ave. owner the late Abel Garraghan. Dutton said that he worked with OCA officials on a $3 million overhaul of the location with the goal of selling the entire building to the county upon completion for between $6 and $8 million. Officials in the administration of County Executive Mike Hein were aware of Dutton’s proposal, but it was never presented to legislators weighing a new location for the court. Meanwhile, cost estimates for the BRC plan rose from an estimated $6 million in a 2015 consultant’s report to between $10 and $13 million in a more recent estimate. County officials have called Dutton’s plan unworkable because it did not factor in the need to keep court operations running during the renovation or the added costs associated with work on a government facility.
Donaldson and Parete fought an unsuccessful court battle to change wording on the ballot proposition which claims that the move to the BRC “would improve services to the children and families of the Ulster County Family Court” and “reduce the need to raise property taxes,” calling the language misleading. Now, they’re protesting a mailing sent by the county to thousands of voters touting the BRC plan. The mailing claims that the proposal would be less expensive than alternative plans, would be more accessible to public transportation and would create “new efficiencies” by moving the court to a site adjacent to the Ulster County Department of Social Services office.
Donaldson estimated that the mailing cost taxpayers at least $40,000 not including printing costs, and called the taxpayer-funded electioneering on behalf of the proposition inappropriate.
“If Mike Hein wants to take money from his own campaign funds for this, that’s perfectly acceptable,” said Donaldson. “But you can’t do it with taxpayers’ dollars.”
Donaldson and Parete filed a formal compliant with District Attorney Holley Carnright on Friday, alleging that the mailing constituted a misuse of public funds. Carnright said that after discussing the issue with county attorneys and legislative leaders, he determined that, “There is no evidence of criminality that would warrant my office’s involvement.”
Carnright said that he based his decision on resolutions passed by the county legislature authorizing the placement of the issue on the ballot and the wording of the proposition. Minutes from a June 9 meeting of the legislature’s Ways and Means Committee show that lawmakers discussed the need for “public education” to pass the ballot measure and “the willingness of the county executive to help educate the public through this process.” But nothing in either resolution expressly authorizes the spending of public money to support the ballot measure. In fact, a line for “fiscal impact” of the resolution reads “none.” Donaldson said that he planned to pursue his complaint with the state’s Board of Elections and state Attorney General’s Office as well as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.
“It’s like David and Goliath when you have someone who can spend taxpayers’ money any way they want,” said Donaldson.