The Post-Star recently received a copy of a draft management agreement for the former GE dewatering site in Fort Edward that town officials have been illegally withholding from the public.
The town didn’t give it to us as it was obliged to under the Freedom of Information law. It was dropped off at our office by someone who was standing up for the law and believed we should have it.
Perhaps the most interesting things in the long, detailed and seemingly complete agreement are two lease agreements attached at the end. One is for a portable truck scale for $500 a month, the other for a portable electric generator at $1,500 a month. The start date on both is April 1 of this year.
The equipment is being leased by D.A. Collins Construction of Wilton to Fort Edward Development, the company that has been hired to manage the former dewatering site. Robert Manz signed the leases for Fort Edward Development and the controller of D.A. Collins signed for that company.
But Robert Manz is also the chief operating officer of D.A. Collins, which means he controls both sides of these leases.
D.A. Collins’ executives, including Manz, also control WCC, a real estate holding company that used to own the former dewatering site. Last December, WCC gave the property to a newly formed nonprofit corporation, Fort Edward Local Property Development Corp. At the time, WCC owed more than $400,000 in taxes on the property.
Those taxes have still not been paid. Town officials swear they will be paid — sometime.
All sorts of questions have been raised by the work of Post-Star reporters Gwendolyn Craig and Kathleen Phalen-Thomaselli about the tangle of transactions associated with this large, valuable commercial property.
Red flags go up when we see from Craig’s reporting that the former owner of the property (WCC), the firm that has been hired to manage it (Fort Edward Development) and the company with equipment-leasing agreements for the site (D.A. Collins) are all partly or wholly controlled by the same man (Robert Manz).
Did Neal Orsini, the Town Board member who also leads the nonprofit Fort Edward LPDC, notice this overlap? Was the town supervisor, Terry Middleton, aware of it?
Is it a coincidence that the local nonprofit formed at the end of last year to take over the site (Fort Edward Local Property Development Corp.) and the recently formed for-profit company it hired to manage the site (Fort Edward Development) have names that are very easily confused?
We believe the confusion is intentional, meant to obscure a cozy setup that grants two benefits — relief from a large tax burden and creation of a source of revenue — to the same very small group of people.
The for-profit management company (Fort Edward Development) will receive 50% of the profits from any rentals or leases or sales of property at the site. The other 50% goes to the local nonprofit (Fort Edward LPDC). The outstanding tax bill will get paid out of those revenues, too, according to the agreement.
Katie DeGroot, a local resident, showed up at Monday’s meeting of the Fort Edward Town Board, looking for some answers, but all she got were misleading statements about the agreement from board members and inaccurate ones about state law from the board’s lawyer, Don Boyajian.
Boyajian asserted the agreement is not a public document, because it has not been signed. But draft agreements are also public documents, especially when they have been discussed in public meetings and people not on the board and not parties to the agreement have received copies, as in this case.
The state Committee on Open Government has said the Town Board is in violation of the Open Meetings law and the Freedom of Information law. This state agency is the expert, and its reputation depends on fair and objective interpretation of the law. Its employees have on more than one occasion told us news we did not want to hear — that information we wanted was not public.
Boyajian, in contrast, is paid to represent the interests of his client, the Town Board, whose members do not want to release the agreement to the public. It is not a surprise that Boyajian’s view of the law reflects the desire of his client.
Instead of striving to be transparent and to answer all the questions of local people like Katie DeGroot, Orsini and Middleton grew defensive. They distracted from the issue by attacking the stories that have been written about it.
Their “blame the messenger” attempt turned comic when they were talking about the number of potential clients who had shown interest in the site.
“They’re working their hind ends off, trying to market the property, that’s where it stands,” Middleton said. “I mean, the people on their time, they’re not getting paid for it, are over there showing the site, multiple different clients, and my hat’s off to every one of them.”
It is good news that the site is drawing so much interest, but that seemed to be contradicted by Orsini, who said articles in The Post-Star were “scaring people away like you have no idea.”
We’re confused. Are they so busy with clients that people showing the site have to “work their hind ends off,” or is the newspaper “scaring people away like you have no idea?”
This is what is clear: A sweet deal for D.A. Collins and some of its executives has been set up around the former dewatering site in Fort Edward, and the Town Board has been very reluctant about making the details of that deal public.
Orsini said he wants to have everything wrapped up before presenting it to the public, but that is not the way this process works. The public is supposed to know what public officials are doing every step of the way, so they can ask questions and raise objections before everything is signed and settled. It’s not too late to handle this issue in the transparent way it should be. Fort Edward officials should start doing that now.