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EDITORIAL: Final vote on state grant should avoid conflicts

EDITORIAL: Final vote on state grant should avoid conflicts

Public needs to be reassured that process is fair, transparent

They’ve had a lot of control in determining which projects are feasible and which make the cut.

In the interest of fairness and openness, maybe they need to give up some control of the final package.

That’s the only way citizens will be assured, to the degree that it’s possible at this point, that developers and others involved in the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) don’t have a direct say in the selection of projects that directly benefit themselves.

An article in Sunday’s Gazette by reporter Pete DeMola articulated the conflicts of interest that some developers and businesses have as members of the Local Planning Committe (LPC) in determining which local projects get funding under a $10 million state economic development grant.

What’s happening is the result of loose state ethical rules, operating on a kind of honor system, that’s designed to identify and prohibit such conflicts.

It’s also the result of the involvement of a relatively small, close-knit circle of individuals and entities with expertise and interest in development and planning.

The state Department of State could have approved an independent committee to determine which projects get funded under the grant funding. And it could have signed off on a co-chair for the LPC who wasn’t pitching a project of his own. But it didn’t do that.

So what we have is 16 members of the DRI decision-making panel, about a quarter of whom have some kind of vested interest in the projects seeking funding.

Under state guidelines, panelists have to recuse themselves from discussing and voting on their own projects and those of family members. Those guidelines themselves would eliminate some of the ethical concerns — if the final grant funding was being voted on by the panel in separate, individual parts.

But the LPC’s co-chair, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, says he wants the final projects to be bundled together in a single, unified package.

That raises the question of how exactly a panelist could recuse himself from voting on his own proposal, but also vote on a final package that includes his proposal.

The mayor says the final voting system hasn’t been determined. This is where creativity to avoid the appearance of impropriety could come into play.

Maybe they need to set up some kind of two-tiered vote, whereby panels all vote on individual projects. The LPC could then have a second vote only of members who have no vested interest in any of the projects to decide on the makeup of the final package.

Does that take power away from certain heavy hitters to determine the final package? Sure it does. But they’ve already put their resources and clout behind the proposals that got them to the point of the final vote.

Or maybe the LPC doesn’t vote on a single, comprehensive package, as the mayor desires. Maybe individual projects that get the most votes from the panel, after recusals, are what the city puts forth for the money.

Or maybe they do some kind of ranked-voting of projects, as some governments are considering doing with political candidates, to determine the final package.

We’re sure the mayor or the state Department of State can come up with other options that could resolve the ethical concerns.

The citizens have right not only to a package that best serves the community for years to come, but one that was done in good faith.

The way the panel ultimately decides on the final package will be a measure of whether it succeeded.

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