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Watertown Daily Times 

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, speaks Wednesday during an editorial board meeting with The Watertown Daily Times. Stefanik refuted President Trump's plan to have the Department of Defense pay for the border wall.

Stefanik town hall set for South Glens Falls

SOUTH GLENS FALLS — The long-awaited public town hall meeting with NY-21 Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, has been scheduled for next week in South Glens Falls, according to Kelly Obermayer, director of development for the Moreau Community Center.

The event was recently scheduled for Thursday, April 5, at the Moreau Community Center, 144 Main St. in South Glens Falls, and Stefanik is hosting the event, said Obermayer on Thursday afternoon.

“The doors will open at 11:30 a.m., and it runs from 12 to 1 p.m.,” said Obermayer. “Mark Frost (editor of The Chronicle in Glens Falls) will be the moderator and it is open to the press and the public.”

Nonetheless, there are size and parking limits at the community center.

“They asked us how many it would seat and we said, ‘200,’” Obermayer said. “I wish I could pack more in.”

As far as parking, Obermayer said that Kilmer Funeral Home, two doors down from the center, has always been cooperative and if there is not an event scheduled at the funeral home on Thursday, some people can park there.

“I will know the night before the town hall,” she said. “If it is available, I will post a sign. Look for a sign that says ‘event parking’ with an arrow.”

Since last year, constituents have been asking the congresswoman to hold an open public town hall meeting, and Thursday’s announcement comes in on the heels of a recent Sunday Post-Star story detailing constituent concerns about Stefanik’s lack of public forums in the area, and a Post-Star editorial inviting the congresswoman to hold a public town hall locally.

While many are making plans to attend, some have expressed concerns about the venue size, worried they will not get into the forum.

“I am planning on going,” said LoisAnn Jahne of Cambridge. “I find the suddenness of the announcement to be interesting, as well as the limited time frame and number of people who can fit in per fire code.”

After four attempts to contact various sources on Stefanik’s team on Thursday afternoon, The Post-Star was unable to have specific questions answered.

The questions include: How will questions and entry be handled? Who will handle security? What if there is a large crowd and the space does not hold everyone — will there be some means for others to participate? Was there a reason for the time and location? How was the moderator selected?

Instead, spokesman Tom Flanagin sent an online link to The Post-Star to get answers from a story published Thursday in The Chronicle of Glens Falls. The Post-Star again requested answers to the list of questions, but did not receive a response.

According to the story Flanagin referenced, “Mark Frost will moderate at the congresswoman’s request.”

In a report to Congress last year — “Millennials & the GOP: Rebuilding Trust with an Untapped Electorate” — Stefanik said that holding town halls is one of the four recommended best practices for reaching millennial constituents.

Stefanik, in the report, advises lawmakers to use a local university or high school to stage a town hall, even though this event has been scheduled for a smaller venue.

At an April 2017 “Coffee with Your Congresswoman” event held at a senior center in Johnstown, Joe Seeman, a Saratoga County political activist, asked Stefanik about holding a town hall in the Glens Falls region.

“Will you commit to having a public town hall in a large place that will fit hundreds and hundreds of people, and soon?” Seeman asked.

Stefanik said, at the time, a town hall in Glens Falls was in the planning stages.

Constituents told The Post-Star in earlier interviews they want to let the congresswoman know how her votes and actions affect their ability to pay for prescription drugs; keep their farms running; buy groceries; and keep their wells, streams and lakes free from contaminants.

Some of the issues constituents hope to address during the upcoming forum include gun issues, public education, access to health care, the environment and the Russia probe.

“I’ve been waiting almost a year to speak to her again,” said Sara Carpenter of Queensbury. “I plan to be there and hope to finally get a direct answer to my questions.”

Jenn March, Special to The Post-Star  

Linda Teal, wife of the late Stephen Teal, bows her head during an honor guard salute at the Vietnam War veterans recognition ceremony at Saratoga National Cemetery on Thursday. Stephen Teal served three tours in the Navy and died in 2013 after a long battle with illness caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the war. Teal, who lives several hours south of the cemetery in Pittstown, in Rensselaer County, comes from generations of veterans before her, including her grandfather and father, who served in World War I and World War II, respectively. President Donald Trump last year signed into law the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, designating March 29 of each year as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. 

Sokol asks for ethics review of possible conflict

QUEENSBURY — Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Matt Sokol said Thursday that he will ask the county Ethics Board to look into whether he had a conflict of interest in voting to approve funding for an organization that loaned money to his parents’ corporation.

The county attorney said earlier in the day Sokol did not have a legal conflict.

Sokol told fellow county supervisors that he would request the Ethics Board review. But he said he was confident he did not have a conflict of interest in voting to fund the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board months after his parents’ company received a $50,000 loan from the organization’s economic development fund. Sokol, his parents and other family members signed a mortgage to secure the loan.

He did not disclose the loan before the vote, which led to a discussion and questions about conflict of interest at a county Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday. Queensbury resident Travis Whitehead first raised questions about Sokol’s involvement.

Sokol, vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors and chairman of the board’s Finance Committee, said he asked after the meeting for an opinion from County Attorney Mary Kissane, and she provided one in writing that he read into the minutes of Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting.

Kissane wrote that she found no conflict of interest, in part because the $7,000 in annual funding that the county voted March 16 to provide the Regional Planning Board is separate from the loan fund, so the vote did not confer a benefit to Sokol’s parents.

The timing of the loan last fall was also significant, because it occurred five months before the funding vote, so “there was no knowledge on your (Sokol’s) part that the $7,000 would have any benefit to your parents.”

“Your vote in favor did not confer a direct or indirect financial benefit to them,” Kissane wrote.

Sokol said he had wished Whitehead would have asked him about the issue in private, instead of bringing it up at a public meeting, so he could have explained the situation.

Whitehead responded that he did not bring up the issue to single out Sokol but to point out concerns he had with oversight of the Regional Planning Board’s loan fund — with who received money and the rate of delinquencies and defaults in the fund.

Whitehead said he didn’t intend to “embarrass” Sokol, but he still believes the Regional Planning Board’s actions deserve scrutiny. The loan fund is supposed to be for “high-risk” businesses that can’t get bank funding, and he said many recipients seemed to be established businesses that should be eligible for bank loans.

“I still have the same concerns I had then,” he said.

Doug Beaty, a Queensbury at-large supervisor who was critical of Sokol’s failure to abstain from the funding vote, said Thursday he had no comment on Kissane’s opinion but was interested to see what the Ethics Board will find.

The five-member Ethics Board includes government and non-government members, and it looks into ethical concerns raised about county officials and employees. It does not have any power to impose penalties.

DEC, EPA finding common ground on river cleanup

SARATOGA — After threatened lawsuits and dueling news releases between the state DEC and the federal EPA over the dredging of the Hudson River, both sides struck a far more congenial tone Thursday.

At a Community Action Group meeting at Saratoga Town Hall, the two agencies said they’re now working together. They need to decide whether more should be done to remove PCBs from the Hudson River.

They’re also “expecting” to order polluters to help remove PCBs from the lower river, said Pete Lopez, new regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It may be General Electric, it may be others,” he said.

General Electric dumped 1.3 million tons of PCBs into the river from the Fort Edward area, until the 1970s. It was ordered to pay for the cleanup, which included a six-year dredging project to lift tons of PCB-contaminated sediment out of the river. It finished that project in 2016 and dismantled its dredging facility in Fort Edward, but hasn’t been officially granted a certification of completion from EPA yet.

Many groups want more dredging because there is still so much contamination in the river. The current estimates suggest it will take the river 80 years to heal.

As dredging came to an end, DEC officials issued increasingly angry news releases, criticizing EPA for seeming to indicate it would say the PCB dredging was complete.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo even threatened to sue the EPA recently.

But the new EPA regional administrator appears to have changed the dynamic.

Lopez, who came to the CAG meeting for the first time Thursday, said he’s personal friends with Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and other senior DEC officials.

He asked Seggos to share DEC’s data with EPA to help guide the decision on the river.

Last week, EPA project manager Gary Klawinski met with DEC to look at the data sets.

The meeting apparently went well.

“I anticipate a CAG meeting where (DEC project manager) Kevin (Farrar) and I get up here and explain everything,” he said, referring to the data each agency has collected.

He stressed that General Electric’s dredging has not yet been certified “complete.”

“No decisions have been made yet,” he said.

He also said EPA has two certifications: one on the “remedial action” completion — the dredging, in other words — and one on completing “the work,” which he defined as happening when the PCBs no longer make fish unsafe to eat.

Lopez made it clear Thursday that he is working closely with DEC on the issue. He told EPA to be “respectful” of the 1,800 samples that “our partner” offered.

While they study that data, they have “paused” discussion on the GE certificate of completion, he said.

The agency is weighing not only whether GE completed what was asked of it, but also whether more should be done, Lopez added.

“We are signaling we don’t know everything,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a shift.”

But Klawinski said communication has improved. Now, Lopez and Seggos are talking; their deputies are talking; and he’s talking with Farrar as he always did.

“Pete, since he’s joined, has made a point that we’re going to engage them even more,” Klawinski said of DEC. “It’s an extra effort to do better.”

Deputy DEC Remediation Commissioner Martin Brand is also pleased.

“We’re very encouraged. We’re very much appreciative of this pause,” he said. “It’s premature right now to say the (PCB removal) remedy is complete. We need to make informed policy decisions on whether more work is needed.”

CAG members were also pleased that DEC and EPA appear to be working together better.

“It’s important for everybody to be on the same page,” said CAG member Rich Elder. “The two parties really need to sit down and make an agreement on what the next steps are.”

It might not come down to just what will improve the river, Lopez warned. His agency must also weigh the cost versus projected improvement.

“How quickly can we have (the river) heal and at what cost? That’s what we’re struggling with,” he said.


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Railroad owner threatens to pull out without $5 million payment

QUEENSBURY — The owner of Saratoga & North Creek Railway told Warren County leaders Thursday that he plans to shut down the railroad unless someone buys a northern rail line from his company for $5 million.

Ed Ellis, president of the railroad’s parent company, Iowa Pacific Holdings, said SNCR’s tourist trains will not run this summer unless the county, state or “somebody” is willing to “invest” in his company to keep it functioning.

That investment would entail purchase of the so-called Sanford Lake/Tahawus rail line north of North Creek, and Ellis said $5 million would be what is needed to get the rail company through the end of its current five-year contract. It would allow the company to try to work with a contractor who bought a former mine at the end of the Sanford Lake line in Tahawus with plans to remove stone.

Ellis came to Warren County on Thursday at the request of county leaders who had not been able to get him to respond in recent months to questions about past due revenue payments.

He came loaded for bear, and was quite combative as he quickly told supervisors that his company could not afford to take the losses it has absorbed to run SNCR, which operates on rails owned by Warren County and the town of Corinth between Saratoga Springs and North Creek.

He explained the company has lost millions of dollars because it has not been able to develop freight traffic to balance bills for its tourist train, which does not produce enough revenue to support itself.

The uproar last fall over storing tanker cars on the rail line north of North River, in the state Forest Preserve, chased away potential storage customers, and the county’s vote to oppose car storage “broke” his company’s relationship with county leaders.

“We aren’t able to continue the operate the railroad financially and lose money,” he said. “There is either a purchase of the Tahawus line or we are done.”

He also said the company also can not afford to pay Warren County the $28,880 that is owed under the contract as a share of the rail line revenue.

Ellis said the “pivot point” in his relationship with Warren County occurred last fall when county supervisors took a stand and voted against tank car storage after renewing a contract that allowed storage of cars that did not contain hazardous materials. (The vote, which was technically to support Essex County’s vote against the storage plan, was non-binding, because Ellis’ company owns the line on which the cars are being kept.)

He said the issue became a political one, and customers looking to store cars will not do business with his company in light of it.

“You created a devastating financial situation for us,” Ellis told county supervisors.

Some questioned whether a contractor’s plans to ship more stone out of Tahawus via the rail line would help, but Ellis said his company can not absorb losses until that business develops.

“I’m willing to do it, I’m just not willing to do it on my own nickel,” he said.

Glens Falls 3rd Ward Supervisor Claudia Braymer said it might be time for the county to consider getting out of the rail business, to which Ellis responded, “I’m giving you the option to throw me out.”

Ellis’ tone softened as the meeting went on, and said he was willing to entertain lower offers for the northern line, for which he paid $1 million and said he invested an additional $2 million. He said he has enjoyed getting to know the people of Warren County, and the towns through which the rail line passes. But he reiterated that the tourist line would not run this summer under present conditions.

County leaders made it clear that there was no interest in buying the line, however.

“That’s not going to happen,” said Warrensburg Supervisor Kevin Geraghty, the county’s acting administrator.

Ellis said he wrote a letter to the state offering to sell the Sanford Lake line to it, but got no response.

The 80 or so tanker cars that have been stored on the line are scheduled to be removed, but weather has delayed the move, he added.

Iowa Pacific Holdings owns railroads around the country, and began operations of SNCR in 2011.