Doing what’s necessary

It’s not often that a long-serving county executive steps down from a job on which he has had a profound impact. It’s not often that a largely unanticipated change in the legislative chairmanship of the same New York State county occurs less than a week later. And it’s not often when the degree of political turmoil surrounding these two events has been as active as it has been. How can this unrest be translated into opportunity?

The first week of 2019 brought an unprecedented number of political events in Ulster County that are sure to have a major influence on the way economic development is pursued. The political stuff needs to be sorted out before change takes place on the economic development front. But big change is definitely coming, and it’s likely to come sooner rather than later.

The five-person Ulster County Board of Ethics chaired by Derek Spada and consisting of members Clayton Van Kleeck, Marjorie Rovereto, Alan Lomita and Kenneth Hassett released a unanimous nine-page opinion on New Year’s Eve concluding that Saugerties county legislator Joseph Maloney had violated the county ethics law. Maloney, the order fining him $7000 determined, had continuously refused to acknowledge wrongdoing and shown no remorse for his alleged misconduct. The five-person board had a not-so-subtle suggestion. It recommended that the county legislature suspend him as a legislator for three months but waive all penalties if he resigned his position on or before January 10. Not very likely.

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Joe Maloney has been the central figure in the tussle for political control of the Ulster legislature, holding the swing vote in the 23-member body in the selection of the entity’s chairman. He never sought to disguise that his wife held a job in the county comptroller’s office when he participated in votes affecting her and others. The United States is not one of the nations that require such figures only to declare their interests rather than excluding themselves from legislative participation. In order to maintain public confidence in American government, the theory has it, case law expects withdrawal from participation in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. That’s not Joe Maloney’s style.

Two days later, the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (UCIDA) held a meeting to discuss “administrative staffing issues.” The county administrative staff was not present. Three representatives of Galileo Technology Group (GTG), including CEO Vince Cozzolino, were.

With the support of the IDA board, chair Randall Leverette had reached out to GTG. What he had in mind, he said, was to provide Ulster County businesses with additional support in economic development. In a December presentation, GTG had proposed a year-long program to support Ulster County manufacturers “with the technical and consulting services usually available only to businesses located at an incubator.” It was to be called the Accelerator Without Walls. 

Throughout December, the IDA board had been unable to reach contractual agreement on the terms of renewal of a $50,000 annual contract between the county and the IDA with the county government’s office of economic development (OED) headed by director Suzanne Holt. According to Leverette, his purpose was not to replace Holt’s department’s services but to supplement it with a new program of services to Ulster County businesses. But after the OED and IDA came to loggerheads, with the OED unwilling to renew a contract with its opt-out-within-30-days removed, the idea of replacement — which Joe Maloney had months before urged — became a possibility. 

After discussion, the IDA board unanimously agreed to offer GTG a five-month contract at $4000 a month to provide interim administrative services, among the most pressing of which is compliance with state law requiring information about agency activities and budgeting to be shared by March 31 with the state Authorities Budget Office. Cozzolino assured the IDA his group could help with that report.

County staff may not have been at the January 2 special IDA board meeting, but they were not voiceless. By telephone and email, they shared a couple of documents within an hour of the conclusion of the meeting. One email acknowledged the non-renewal of the IDA-OED contract. The other questioned the provision of services to Ulster County by an entity which has been directing Orange County’s economic development efforts, and expressed concern about the direction of IDA leadership. The IDA board, county staff contended, had shown bad faith in its negotiations with the county over the contract terms. As to these leadership flaws, Tim Weidemann, a Holt assistant in the OED, suggested contact with former IDA chair John Morrow, whose reappointment to the IDA board had been strongly opposed by Joe Maloney. See what Morrow has to say, Weidemann urged.

Morrow recalled the negotiations over the renewal of his IDA term. Joe Maloney wanted a commitment Morrow would support opening up the contract for administrative services. It was his clear recollection, Morrow said, that Maloney was making that a price for his support. Maloney wanted to separate the agency from county administration. Morrow said he couldn’t speak for the other members of the agency he chaired. “I’m chair, not dictator,” Morrow remembered himself saying. In the end, he was not reappointed.

Leverette insisted his intention had not been to terminate the OED’s contract for administrative management. The IDA board didn’t have that in mind, he said, no matter what Joe Maloney had told others months before. The IDA had been willing to re-up with the OED. Only when the OED inserted the non-opt-out clause and refused to remove it (on the grounds of mistrust) did a change become a serious alternative, Leverette said. There had been no “bad faith” on the IDA board’s part. As Leverette saw it, the OED had fired itself. If the IDA now had to find an alternative entity to administer IDA business, the agency he headed had to move fast.

The gap between Morrow’s recollection and Leverette’s narrative seems to form the core of the differences of motivation between the two sides. It has been sufficient to sustain a robust local blame game.  

Early in the morning two days later, an email arrived from Cozzolino. “Galileo was well-intentioned to assist the Ulster County IDA on an interim basis,” it said. “However, we learned through media reports this week of the deeper issues between the IDA and County Executive. Therefore, my firm will not be moving forward with the IDA and focus on other opportunities.”

Where did that leave IDA board chair Leverette? He wasn’t happy about what he saw as an attempt to box him into a corner. He didn’t blame Cozzolino, who ran a risk if being punished for what he had intended as a good deed. But with OED taking a hard stance, did Leverette have an alternative to re-upping with the OED?

He was convinced he had. A retired big-business executive who had in his words “time on my hands,” Leverette said that if necessary he would do what needed to be done himself. It was not his preferred option. He would continue conversations with county government, Galileo and other consultants to do part or all of the administrative work that needs to be done. 

But the agency he headed would not drop the administrative ball regardless. Leverette insisted this past weekend that he saw his responsibility as agency head in inclusive terms. “We’ll do what is necessary,” he said.

The calculation about this situation was further complicated by the sudden news on Friday that county executive Mike Hein, scheduled for an election this fall, would be resigning his elected position to head a state agency. Hein’s support for Holt’s economic development efforts has been long evident. He was unlikely not to support her position that the IDA’s negotiations for administrative services with others justified a county contract that insisted on deletion of the 30-day opt-out option.

This Monday evening brought the momentous news of the unanimous selection by Democrats of independent legislator Tracey Bartels as the new chair of the Ulster County Legislature. If there have been cozy understandings in the management of the area of economic development among the political players, these are now sure to be reviewed if not disrupted with Bartels at the helm of the newly reorganized legislature. When it comes to the dispute involving the IDA and the OED, that review couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

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