The report issued by the state Department of State in the fall of 2015 that criticized the town of Queensbury’s oversight of waterfront program contracts was not critical of the performance of town Supervisor John Strough.
Strough took office in 2014, and the report reviews contracts that started and ended before that.
The report is short but dense, full of numbers, percentages and charts. But if you read it two or three times, you can see that something was wrong with the way these programs were being handled. You can see, for example, in a chart on the “local match” portion of the contracts, that almost all of the local match claims — almost $1.5 million — had been disallowed by the state.
That’s alarming. But the state reviewers lessened the alarm by working with the town to find “alternate sources of local match.” In solving the problem, they did the work of the contract administrator — David Decker — for him, and in the process, they may have unwittingly helped Decker cover his tracks.
Decker has recently been charged with fraud. Since its creation in 1999 up until he was arrested, he had been the head of the Lake George Watershed Coalition, which includes nine municipalities and three counties, along with various state agencies and nonprofit organizations. The investigation, which is still going on, is looking into whether Decker was for many years falsifying contract paperwork to enrich himself.
Where Strough went wrong, back in 2015, was in not recognizing that the issues identified by the Department of State may have gone beyond incompetence and in not sharing the report with the rest of the Town Board.
Board members Doug Irish and Brian Clements have complained they should have been told about it, and they’re right.
But board members knew the state review was taking place, and they knew a report had been issued. Even though Strough reassured them that the issues were being addressed, board members could have asked to see the report for themselves.
Lots of people, including everyone on the Town Board, knew problems were brewing with the Watershed Coalition. But no one made the leap to suspecting Decker of fraud until Travis Whitehead, a Queensbury citizen, began looking into the situation last year, and took some of what he found to the Warren County sheriff.
Our human tendency is to normalize, especially when we’ve known people for years and can’t imagine they’ve been misleading us.
Strough’s failure to pass the state report on to the Town Board seems like a glaring error now, but only because we know about Decker’s eventual arrest.
Strough deserves some blame for the town’s lax oversight of Decker, but so do many others who worked with him as part of the Watershed Coalition.
Irish and Clements, along with Mark Westcott, a former county supervisor, have been pushing hard on one aspect of this story — that the report was never handed out to the Town Board. They have not emphasized that the great majority of Decker’s time as head of the coalition predates Strough’s time as supervisor.
Strough is a Democrat, while Irish, Clements and Westcott are Republicans. Irish and Clements are on the campaign committee for Rachel Seeber, an at-large Queensbury supervisor to the Warren County board who will be running against Strough in November. Westcott is her campaign chairman. Irish is the town Republican Committee chairman.
Irish, Clements, Westcott and Seeber argue that pushing this story is not political. They’re advocating for transparency, they say. Yet Westcott’s and Clements’ complaints have turned up prominently on the Warren County Republican Committee’s Facebook page.
The problem is that, with their double and triple alliances, it’s hard to know what their priorities are.
Here is a final example of what we mean when we say they are taking their complaint too far: A few days ago, Clements hand-delivered a letter to the homes of two citizen representatives on our editorial board, urging them to see the issue from his point of view.
The letter speculates that someone at The Post-Star, “probably on the editorial board and probably in collusion with John Strough,” has set up a “huge ‘snow job’.”
Our citizen representatives do a great job of bringing thoughtful points of view and fresh insights to our editorial board. They are not professional members of the press, however, and do not have experience with being pressured by people in the community about the positions taken in the paper’s editorials.
Clements has known these two local people for years. By going to their homes with his letter, he blurred boundaries between the personal, professional and political in a way that is regrettable. We worry that it was meant to be intimidating.
People hesitate to enter the public arena, whether it’s running for their town or village board or serving on the newspaper’s editorial board, because of the way partisanship has come to dominate politics and the way politics has spilled over into personal interactions. It’s a shame and it goes to the heart of how politicized the Queensbury Town Board has become.
It’s conjecture on our part, but we would not be surprised if Strough’s reasoning for not releasing the report to the board was equally predictable, because he knew his colleagues would pounce.
Partisan politics helps no Queensbury resident.
What we would like to see from the Town Board is an emphasis not on who to blame but on how to improve. The police are handling the Decker investigation now. The Town Board can find plenty of other, more positive things to do.
Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rob Forcey, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran and citizen representatives Dan Gealt and George Nelson.