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Monday, June 30, 2014

East Greenbush Town Board Casino Meetings Notes Provide Insight

Here is the "lengthy petition," as appropriately described by the Albany Times-Union, filed by the Save East Greenbush group against the Town Board, the Gaming Commission, and those planning/hoping to construct a casino there.

For those of you who don't actually plan on reading through the 65 pages, meaning just about everyone (we're down in Florida where it's really hot and I have some time on my hands), the complaint basically boils down to two items:

 - The Special Meeting during which the Town Board adopted the resolution supporting the casino was held in violation of the Open Meetings Law, which states that "it is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and be able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy."

Whew, well that makes just about every decision coming out of the room in Albany, where the three or four white men ultimately determine matters pertaining to budget and law, illegal!  But in this case, the petitioners contend that the room in which the meeting was held was simply too small, causing some 80 people to be turned away.  They point out that two prior meetings were held in schools that had plenty of room, implying that there was a sinister purpose to this particular meeting being held in a room with limited space.  And that the town scheduled it there "despite having been put on notice numerous times that the facility was clearly inadequate."

 - The Town adopted the resolution in favor of the casino without an environmental review having been conducted. That is in "blatant" violation, the complaint contends, of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which specifically states that its "basic purpose" is to "incorporate the consideration of environmental factors into the existing planning, review, and decision-making the earliest possible time."  With the emphasis on the italicized phrase, which is repeated throughout.  The complaint cites specific instances of activity - meetings and resolutions - to demonstrate that the earliest possible time is long past, and that the resolution is therefore invalid. "The only way to accomplish the stated intent of SEQRA is to assure that the potential environmental, social , and economic impacts of a proposed action are completed and reviewed prior to any significant authorization being granted for a specific proposal."  And yes, the previously mentioned nearby girls scouts camp is specified as a potential social impact.

There you have it, in a nutshell.

The real entertainment value of this document however comes in Exhibit B, a collection of handwritten notes by a Town Board member about various meetings amongst themselves and with members of the development team.  They are included in the petition to make the point that crucial deliberations and discussions regarding the casino bid took place behind closed doors  and out of the public view - " these private meetings formulated and designed a plan for marketing, gaining support and the development of the Casino Site" - thereby bolstering their case that the process was in violation of the Open Meetings Law.  Sprinkled throughout the notes are references to "Feathers," or "JF;" so town officials were in direct contact with James Featherstonhaugh himself, the former NYGA president leading the bids for Saratoga Raceway and Casino.

The notes provide an interesting look into just what was on the minds of the town officials working in favor of the casino.  And what was mostly on their minds was selling the idea to the public, press, and politicians, downplaying any negatives, and publicizing the $5.7 million in host fees that the Town stands to earn (though at one point, someone wonders just where that number came from).  Here are a few highlights:

On April 23, it's noted that Feathers called legislators including State Senators Roy McDonald (to whose campaign Feathers, NYGA, and Saratoga harness all contributed in 2012) and Kathleen Marchione, and Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin.  A note about a power point presentation to the town refers to "Morgan Hook-PR" from the prominent lobbying firm SKDKnickerbocker, noting that the PR team will "take the heat." Emphasized with a star is a notation to "DO just one" of these - "any more continues to promote 'negative' side more than anything."  Discussing a mailer about to go out, reporters are singled out: Rex Smith of the Troy Record is "good;" Jordan [Carleo-Evangelist] of the Times-Union is a "good guy," and [Chris] Churchill of that paper is an "advocate."

On May 5, it's noted that their Facebook page received 108 likes, as certain members of the Business Alliance are considered to speak in support of the casino at the next public meeting.

On May 9, Feathers believes that revenue estimates "are low/conservative, has potential to be more." And he met with school Superintendent Nagel [sic, Angela Nagle].  There's a note about a jobs quota for local employees.

Feathers goes over the negatives - "a lot of what ppl worry abt are myths."  Crime - "Non-threat in casino - high security." (Of course, that doesn't address crime in surrounding areas.)  Addicted gamblers - "Biggest type of addict is sports gamblers."  (Take that, you sports gamblers!) Traffic - "Bigger concern for Feathers, heavy traffic deters return guests."  (Of course, no concern about the effect on the community, only on casino business.)

As time goes on, the notes do reflect some concern about SEQRA, and the question of what happens if there's a lawsuit.  The Board seems to think that the clock on SEQRA does not start until the $50 million licensing fee is submitted. "Article 78 doesn't say stop unless they get an injunction, but that process is expensive and difficult to do."  Obviously, the Save East Greenbush group is giving that a shot.

There are also minutes from a Town Board meeting in which three members speak out in favor of the project, albeit with some reservations - one member concedes that he voted against the referendum.  Another cites a quote by Charles Kettering: "The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress."  That's funny, because I also saw that exact quote cited the other day by Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia in response to his company's crushing loss in the Supreme Court.  Save East Greenbush is hoping that their Town Board suffers a similar judicial setback.


RG said...

If you have spare time on your hands search..Casino Suicides.

Alan Mann said...

RG - Yes, time on my hands, and thanks. This is from an advocacy website, but it's a start: