“Transparency” is a catchphrase today used by politicians of all parties and every worldview. It has been used on each of our candidate forums this local election year.
Pronouncing the word is easy but doesn’t make sense unless it’s followed through.
To be transparent, a government – made up of elected leaders – needs to be honest and share information with its citizens. The decision-making process should be disclosed.
On Tuesday, October 12th, a handful of Guilderland citizens spoke out to hold their county government accountable.
The process of replacing two members of the district planning committee was shrouded in secrecy. Albany County’s Legislator Mark Grimm shed light on the dark case.
Before we get into the details, it’s important to see the big picture. Planning bodies – in each of our communities and at the county level – do important work. As at the county level, many of the board members are unpaid.
They devote their time and expertise to reviewing suggestions and discovering what might harm the common good.
In New York, general state law requires local communities to submit certain development requests, proposed zone changes, and comprehensive plans to the district planning agency for review, comment, and recommendations before taking final action.
The law enables local decision-makers to consider the impact of their projects on the county as a whole; it gives local land use decisions a regional perspective. The process enables communities without professional planning staff to use planning expertise at the county level and helps the county planning committee to track development trends across the county.
Albany County has five voting members on its legislature appointed planning committee and three ex officio members who consult but do not vote with the board.
Two of these voting members were Dominic Rigosu, an architect, and Enzo Sofia, an engineer. They were pushed out of their jobs for no reason or even without notice.
Both learned they were about to be replaced when Grimm called them after seeing a resolution that would replace them on the agenda for the October 12th state parliament session.
âWe are technicians,â said Sofia of herself and Rigosu. “We make decisions based on evidence and technical knowledge so that the community doesn’t suffer from problems such as traffic, such as drainage.”
Sofia told us that after hearing about Grimm, he talked to Rigosu about it and they decided that a layoff would look bad on their rÃ©sumÃ©s, so they would step down instead. In the updated district resolution it was said that the positions existed âbecause of the resignationsâ.
“Your hand was forced,” a county lawmaker Joanne Cunningham correctly claimed.
The question is: why?
Citizens who watched these two planning council members in action spoke about their fairness, lack of favoritism, technical expertise, professionalism, public accessibility, and more.
We reviewed the District Bylaws for the Planning Committee, approved in 2020, and determined that these were the reasons for removing members of the Planning Committee: unlawful conflict of interest; Violation of rules; Inability to perform tasks; inappropriate acts or behavior; Absence of at least 50% of the meetings within a calendar year; or failure to meet mandatory training requirements.
Like Sofia, Rigosu told us: “None of them apply.”
The company reports regularly on the district planning committee meetings and we believe we would have known if any of these criteria were met. The articles of association also list the following reasons for a vacancy: death, resignation, disability. Neither of these apply.
Citizens directly and eloquently called their government to account.
One, Gordon McClelland, who lives in Guilderland said, âWe need some transparency, and I think Albany County’s lawmakers need to sit down and examine themselves and find out exactly what is going on. Is this a political maneuver by someone in relation to some of the issues they are dealing with, or is it the reality, really a professional translation of these two positions? What is really behind it? “
Andrew Joyce, the resolution’s main sponsor to replace Sofia and Riguso, insisted, “The two people we are replacing on the planning committee have resigned.”
When asked why he did not oppose the dismissal, Sofia said to us: âWe serve the legislature because we have been appointed to this position. That’s why we had to resign without a fight. “
This is not a resignation.
Joyce scolded those who spoke up and said, “To be honest, it is very harmful and hurtful to have two very skilled, sincere officials dragged through the mud by their names.”
He was not referring to the two professionals who had given their time and expertise for years only to be fired for no reason. He spoke of the two substitute candidates. The worst that was said about them was that they lacked the expertise of the two fallen members.
Joyce also said that “a fresh perspective” was needed on the board, despite having two new members in the past year and a half. And many local planning bodies have long-term members who are often viewed as an asset. Guilderland, for example, has had the same chairman of the planning committee since 2000. Sofia said he served on the county board for four or five years and Rugosa had been on the board for 13 years.
Joyce also said that different viewpoints were required from different parts of the county, although the former board had members from Guilderland (Rigosu), Colonie (Sofia), the Hilltowns, Albany and Voorheesville. The new candidates come from Glenmont and Menands.
Most disturbing, however, was Joyce’s insistence that “lies and misinformation” were being spread.
As we wrote earlier in this area, misinformation often fills a vacuum. What the citizens wanted was true information.
“Words are important, Mr. Grimm,” said Joyce, insisting that Sofia and Rigosu not be released. “The facts are that you have resigned from your positions on the Albany County Planning Committee.”
Words do matter. Saying that Sofia and Rigosu have resigned doesn’t tell the whole story; it is not a transparent explanation. They were forced out of their jobs.
When Cunningham saw this, Joyce said, “I don’t think we made anyone do anything.”
We disagree, and we believe the public deserves to know why.
The resolution’s other sponsor, Matthew Peter, may have gotten closer to the truth when he said, âThese two members have served at the discretion of the Majority Leader, and there have been numerous complaints in my district and many others like themâ¦. â
He also spoke of people who “were actually completely unprofessional and who stopped development and tried to overrule places”.
Being on the planning committee is a tough job; Many people are dissatisfied with decisions on all sides of an issue. Sofia and Riguso both have companies that rely on development – Sofia described itself as “growth-enhancing” – but they shared their expertise to ensure that development is done wisely.
It is essential that planning bodies work independently of politics. If members can be fired for following sound planning principles, the whole purpose of their review is negated.
According to the law, the municipalities have the option of their own planning committees overriding those of the district with a majority decision. When the members of a site’s planning committee are strong enough of a project – as Guilderland did with Pyramid’s plans for Rapp Road – the county vote is overruled.
Most revealingly, Peter reiterated that Sofia and Rigosu had served for the pleasure of Majority Leader Joyce.
“Just to make it clear to everyone,” Joyce said, “this is an appointment by the Albany County Legislature, not a Majority Leader.”
But actually none of the legislators seemed to know more than the citizens why two capable board members should be replaced.
We are pleased that the vote on the decision has been delayed and, as requested by the citizens, the Personnel Committee will look into the matter.
We hope that the committee will make its deliberations transparent and inform the public as requested by the citizens: “What is behind all this?”
As Guilderland Resident Karen White said, “It needs to be explained because any Albany County resident could lose if those two people are replaced with the two people you nominate.”
Democratic governments exist to serve the people, and people want to know why. Let us have a transparent answer.