Smack. Right in the face of the Cape Vincent Local Development Corp.
The only thing bigger than the blow itself is the squabble over why it came to pass.
The Town Council recently cut ties with the nonprofit organization that spearheads improvement projects, accusing it of not following state Open Meetings Law.
But the LDC, which depends on town and village support when applying for grants, says secrecy isn’t the issue. Instead, it believes the town is retaliating after the group sent out a survey that included questions it says town officials interpreted as anti-wind power.
The LDC says the survey was needed for its current project of drafting a master plan for the village.
“This has nothing to do with us being open,” Chairwoman L. Sam DeLong said. “It has to do with, we sent out a survey.”
The corporation’s goal is to encourage development, new industry and job opportunities in Cape Vincent.
The organization is not legally required to abide by Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Law. But Town Supervisor Thomas K. Rienbeck said he thinks it still should and he quit his seat on the corporation “for the reason of it being a secretive organization.”
The town was in its own hot water earlier this year when it refused to release St. Lawrence Wind Farm’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for weeks as the Planning Board was reviewing it, a violation of state Freedom of Information law.
The corporation is accused of being secretive on two instances following the survey’s release. It held a private training session at the home of an opponent of wind turbines in the town, and it did not provide information requested by Harvey J. White, an unsuccessful candidate for town council last November.
Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said a private corporation with only a few public officials on its board is not subject to Open Meetings Law. Mr. Freeman said while a private corporation does not have to fill FOIL requests, its documents often can be accessed through public officials who sit on its board.
“Anything they receive would be subject to FOIL,” he said.
There were five public officials on a board of 15 before Mr. Rienbeck and Town Planning Board Chairman Richard J. Edsall resigned, Ms. DeLong said. County Legislator Michael J. Docteur, village Mayor Timothy D. Maloney and village Planning Board Chairman Jeffrey A. Herpel remain on the board.
Mr. White requested all meeting minutes, treasurer’s reports, public notices for meetings and funding records from the corporation since its conception about two years ago.
“It’s not like it’s a town that’s been around for 100 years,” Mr. White said.
Ms. DeLong said while the LDC wants to be open, the volume of material was simply unreasonable for a group of volunteers to gather. She said LDC meetings, with the exception of training sessions, are open to the public, but poorly attended.
She also described both Mr. Rienbeck’s comments to her and the FOIL request as “bullying and harassment.”
Mr. White said he made the FOIL request because he felt only a few people on the corporation actually drafted the questions. Mr. White said he believes some members of the corporation are members of the Wind Power Ethics Group, a citizens’ organization that opposes wind farms.
“They’re trying to tell everyone how to live,” said Mr. White, whose family owns farmland and has contracts with wind power developers.
He is also concerned that an April training session was held at the home of Urban C. and Sally Hirschey. He believes this was a conflict of interest.
Mr. Hirschey, while not a member of the LDC, has been appointed chairman of the Wind Power Ethics Group. Mr. Hirschey said he was home the night of the training session, but did not participate.
Mrs. Hirschey, who is on the corporation’s board, said she offered her home for the evening before her husband became chairman of the group. The session focused on creating a mission statement for the organization, with the help from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Ms. DeLong said. Both Mrs. Hirschey and Ms. DeLong said the ethics group played no role drafting the survey.
“The LDC has never taken a stand on windmills. We have never asked members where they stand,” Ms. DeLong said.
Mrs. Hirschey said she does not consider herself a member of the ethics group.
“There’s no membership. You don’t have to say ‘I’m a member.’ There are no dues. Did I help them? Yes. Did I join? No.”
Mr. Maloney said the village has not cut ties with the corporation but plans to issue a statement to the LDC asking that it remain open for scrutiny.
“The perception that some of the public has is they’re not open enough,” he said.
He said the LDC needs to find a way to provide requested information even if it must be done by volunteers with limited time.
“If I need to be part of that process to fill FOIL requests, I will be,” he said.
About 2,000 surveys were sent out, and the corporation received more than 800 responses, meaning at least 40 percent of the surveys were returned.
“Historically, if you do a mass mailing of that nature, 10 to 15 percent is a good return,” Ms. DeLong said.
The survey asks respondents if they are in favor of wind farms, and how far towers should be set back from the village and the St. Lawrence River. Its results will not be available until later in the week.
Mr. Rienbeck was initially outraged the survey was mailed without his approval. Ms. DeLong said the supervisor simply did not attend meetings, or read the minutes that were e-mailed to him.
By Kelly Vadney
Publication: Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, NY)
Publication Date: 05/22/2007
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