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Foss: Schenectady DRI conflicts of interest are troubling

Foss: Schenectady DRI conflicts of interest are troubling

Foss: Schenectady DRI conflicts of interest are troubling
State Street in downtown Schenectady is pictured in August.
Photographer: file photo

When you think about it, it’s pretty brazen. 

Roughly one-quarter of the 16-member panel tasked with figuring out how to spend a $10 million state grant to revitalize downtown Schenectady are actively trying to steer money into their own pockets. 

If that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is. 

According to a recent report by The Daily Gazette’s Pete DeMola, panel members representing some of the city’s most powerful players are pitching projects that, if selected, would direct taxpayer money to their own organizations. 

A few examples: 

  • A coalition of government agencies and developers that includes Proctors, the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, Rivers Casino and Resort and the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority are seeking $550,000 for equipment to host more outdoor events. 

These groups all have representatives on the panel, known as the Local Planning Committee.

  • Proctors is also seeking $600,000 to convert unused space into two 30-seat basement screening rooms and $400,000 to purchase, maintain and operate outdoor festival equipment. 

Proctors CEO Philip Morris is a member of the LPC. 

  • The LPC is co-chaired by Dave Buicko, president and CEO of the Galesi Group, which owns Mohawk Harbor. 

Boosting activity at Mohawk Harbor is one of the main goals of Schenectady’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, and a number of projects would do exactly that. To name just one example: A state-of-the-art $30 million aquatic center seeking an unspecified amount of funding would bring athletes from all over the region to Mohawk Harbor for events. 

Now, I don’t fault the city's power brokers for wanting a seat at the table and a piece of the pie. 

It’s the natural, entirely-to-be-expected response to dangling $10 million in front of a community and asking them to figure out how to divvy it up. 

If anything, I fault the New York Department of State for its toothless ethics policies and seeming lack of concern. 

LPC members are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that requires them to disclose conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from conversations about their own projects. 

That sounds good.

And if panel members could be trusted to aggressively call attention to potential conflicts of interest and disqualify themselves when necessary, perhaps it would be sufficient. 

Unfortunately, there's good reason to believe it isn't sufficient. 

At one recent LPC meeting, the consultant tapped by the state to guide Schenectady’s DRI process had to remind panel members to raise their hands if they had a conflict of interest. 

It’s sad that such prompting was necessary -- and a sign that the state’s ethical guidelines are too weak to be effective.

And while the number of projects that directly benefit LPC members ought to raise red flags, the only people expressing concern belong to good-government groups like Reinvent Albany. 

"Any time you have individuals who are considering and voting on proposals, and yet have skin in the game, that at the very least creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, if not an outright one," Alex Camarda, a senior policy adviser with Reinvent Albany, told DeMola. 

These murky ethical waters could have been avoided, but it would have required the LPC members to choose between serving on the panel or pitching projects on behalf of their organizations. 

The state didn’t ask people to make that choice. 

I don't know which of the proposals will receive the panel's stamp of approval when the panel votes on a package of projects totaling $15 million later this spring. 

But I'm fairly certain some LPC members will make out pretty well. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

 

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