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A growing problem

A growing problem

Halfmoon's rapid development invites 'pay-to-play' attitude

Saratoga County is the fastest-growing county in the state and Halfmoon, a sizable and attractive piece of riverfront real estate on its southeast corner, is now said to be its fastest-growing township.

There's good news and bad news in that information. Growth can imply positives like increased wealth and civic improvement ; but it also presents previously unexperienced pressures and new challenges that demand change in other spheres. With a rapid pace of growth, those pressures accelerate.

Young people are said to have "growing pains" when their physical growth temporarily spurts beyond the ability of their bodies to absorb those changes. While no one during the last election cycle made the daring claim that "governments are people too," let's take a leap of faith and ascribe growing pains to them as well. It may help in explaining what's been going on in Halfmoon lately.

Keeping tabs

Business -- including governmental business -- is conducted in a more personal manner in small towns and villages by virtue of their limited population, remoteness and comparative isolation from their more "sophisticated" (i.e. impersonal) urban and suburban counterparts.

That smaller universe also means that interests are more likely to conflict in ways that can be impossible to avoid.

But in a small town, everyone knows everyone else's business and is on guard against any behavior in their "friends" that might be interpreted as self-serving or self-aggrandizing. What might be lacking in institutional safeguards usually is more than made up for through everyday contact and social controls. If someone steps out of line, local disapproval is registered quickly, directly and without much mercy. The offending behavior is effectively nipped in the bud and life goes on.

Knowledge that this is a more or less certain outcome fosters an effective degree of behavioral self-censorship.

As the community grows, however, what was once personal becomes increasingly impersonal. The social controls that were so effective in regulating behavior in a small-town atmosphere become less and less so until they disappear altogether. Some might just assume that the situation that has been in place for so long and for so many, still applies. In a less positive light, some might be tempted to use their newfound anonymity to do things that they never would have tried in the past.

And therein lies the problem.

Ethical questions

To recap for those who might not closely follow current events in Halfmoon, there is a sitting supervisor who sold her own home and adjacent property at a price considerably in excess of its appraised value to someone who does business with the town and reportedly stands to gain from the potential construction of health care-related facilities nearby, a project that would not be possible without changes in land use provisions encouraged by the supervisor.

Furthermore, a state Supreme Court justice who is also a former town attorney, allegedly hid his involvement in a number of real estate developments in the town, by paying another to serve as a "front" to shield his activities from public disclosure.

It is for others to determine whether such activity rises to a level of illegality, but it is not jumping to conclusions to question the ethical quality of these activities.

Apparently, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors and the Halfmoon Republican Committee were sufficiently concerned to force a resignation from a committee chairmanship and withhold an endorsement. The matters concerning the sitting judge have come to light only very recently and, at the time of this writing, the consequences may not yet have settled.

While these disclosures indicate that there are several things that require increased attention -- rigorous financial disclosure, more stringent ethical standards -- the area where growing communities appear to experience the most serious transgressions is with property development.

Suburban sprawl

The use and overuse of Planned Development Districts not only exacerbates suburban sprawl -- for which, incidentally, it could be argued that Halfmoon in its current state could be the proverbial poster child -- it invites ethical lapses on a number of levels.

As a starting point, why have a town plan or a system of zoning if it can be circumvented willy-nilly by application and the promise of a few trinkets of far lesser value to the town and its residents than the raw financial profit to be realized by the applicant.

Moreover, saddled as we are with a system of campaign financing that conflates money with speech in a manner that so obviously favors well-heeled "interests" at the expense of ordinary citizens, how can one not perceive a "pay to play" dynamic at work -- especially when the pay happens in such close proximity to the receipt of the pass to play?

Again, it is for others to determine if the matters described rise to a level of illegality. Nonetheless, the appearances are not good; and at one time, that -- the mere appearance of a conflict of interest -- was enough to get one into more trouble than anyone would want.

So too, this "growing pains" explanation might just be naive and far too benign. The crucial thing, though, is that deficiencies have been fully exposed. There are no excuses for inaction.

The town, the county and the Republican Party -- which up until now largely has had a hammer lock on public office there -- are on notice that more resolute controls and fuller public disclosure are immediately called for. Failing that, the public has the ballot box with which to register its displeasure and enforce its own idea of honest government.

It only needs to demonstrate the resolve to use it instead of accepting "business as usual."

John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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