County Attorney Chris Gardner has been named to the Schenectady County Industrial Development Agency’s Board of Directors, raising concerns that his appointment may pose a conflict of interest.
Gardner, the former chairman of the county’s Democratic Committee and among its most influential members, was tapped to replace the ailing Bernie Mericle. Gardner’s appointment was approved by the county Legislature’s Democratic majority, while Republicans Brian McGarry and James Buhrmaster voted against the measure.
Buhrmaster, the Legislature’s minority leader, blasted the appointment as one that will inevitably pose a serious conflict. He said the Democrats lumped Gardner’s name in with other more reasonable appointments to the county’s Human Rights Commission, Fire Advisory Board and Office of Senior and Long Term Care Services Advisory Council so that their vote could later be used against them politically.
“They put a poison pill in there,” he said Tuesday. “There’s no way [Gardner] should be our county attorney and also be on the IDA. This was done on purpose to be used in the future.”
Gardner disputes that any conflict exists between his position with the county and his appointment to the IDA board. He said members of the Legislature — including Buhrmaster — have served on the board in the past without drawing scrutiny.
“If someone wants to make politics out of it, then let them make politics out of it,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to doing more good work for the county.”
Gardner said his experience with working on major economic development projects in the county, including the deal to transfer the Carl Co. building to Proctors Theater and the land acquisition for Schenectady County Community College’s dormitories, will help the county IDA. And he said he can always recuse himself on board votes when a conflict is apparent.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve made tremendous progress. I’m looking forward to the next 10 years.”
The county’s IDA is among a collection of economic development entities overseen by the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority. Though the county IDA maintains its own local board of directors, the executive director of Metroplex serves as the agency’s top administrator.
Gardner joins a board that already has three Democratic legislators in the mix: Cathy Gatta, Martin Finn and Majority Leader Gary Hughes. Buhrmaster believes the board seat should have been given to someone outside of county government and not earning a salary as a county official.
“We should get more people involved in government,” he said. “We don’t need someone there who is on the payroll of the county.”
Buhrmaster said the appointment also gives the appearance of Gardner consolidating his power in county government.
The Democratic caucus appears to have lost two seats on the Legislature with the election of McGarry and Grant Socha, a Conservative expected to caucus with the Republicans.
“My feeling is he does not want to lose control,” Buhrmaster said.
Elmer Bertsch, a community activist who frequently attends county meetings, also took issue with Gardner’s appointment. He said the move certainly seemed to have an appearance of a conflict of interest, given that the board can work out deals with private developers that can then help finance political campaigns.
“Elected or appointed government officials shouldn’t be involved in any authority until there’s publicly financed elections,” he said.