IDA must welcome constructive criticism
Our Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency (CCIDA) was created by the state Legislature in 1972 at the request of our Chautauqua County Legislature. The CCIDA is a public body ultimately controlled by our Chautauqua County Legislature and/or County Executive. The CCIDA is absolutely not any kind of private organization.
The state found in 2021 the CCIDA had seven full-time and five part-time employees on its payroll. There are seven CCIDA Board members. Six are appointed by the County Executive or County Legislature. The seventh member must be a County Legislator.
On July 12, 2023, the State of New York Authorities Budget Office completed a thorough review of the operation and practices of our CCIDA. The “operational review” of the CCIDA was conducted from May to December, 2022.
The state review concluded that the CCIDA had $130,000 in “inappropriate and questionable discretionary spending…” The State found “$26,000 in inappropriate meal purchases…” The State also found over $50,000 of “unauthorized and inappropriate CCIDA payments” including over $18,000 in reimbursements for “membership and other related expenses at a local golf course.”
The Deputy County Executive who also serves as the CCIDA Executive Director, per the Chautauqua County Code, partially dismissed the State’s criticism noting that the State did not find any criminal activity. The County Executive later echoed his Deputy County Executive’s response that the State did not allege any criminal behavior by our CCIDA.
The County Executive went further and suggested that the State, for some unexplained reason, had targeted our CCIDA.
In the fifty plus years of our modern Chautauqua County Legislature and County Executive form of government, we have apparently been spared any criminal conduct by our County officials.
For our current County officials to largely dismiss State criticism of CCIDA practices, procedures and spending of public money, because the State did not find “criminal” behavior is troubling.
Any student of management of private and public organizations is familiar with concepts such as “continuous improvement.” The continuous improvement model was developed after World War II. It refers to a never-ending strive for perfection in everything an organization does. Every organization, including the CCIDA, can always be doing a better job. In fact the Institute of Quality Assurance defines “continuous improvement” as “getting better all the time.”
Every independent review or audit of the CCIDA should be welcomed and embraced. While sometimes parts of any audit can be “nitpicking”, all such outside reviews and its constructive criticisms give the CCIDA the opportunity to be a better public body. The CCIDA should embrace the goal of “getting better all the time.”
The State’s revelation that our CCIDA spent over $18,000 of public money on “reimbursements for membership and other related expenses” at a golf course was stunning.
No County Executive from the first, Joseph Gerace, to the current County Executive, Paul M. Wendel, Jr., would have ever thought it was appropriate for the public to pay their country club dues and expenses. The current head of the CCIDA said rather than argue this issue with the State, the CCIDA will stop what the State called an “inappropriate” expenditure. That $18,000 could have been better spent making additional industrial park acreage in the Joseph Mason County Industrial Park in Ellicott “shovel ready”.
The State also discovered that the CCIDDA is repeatedly violating New York State’s Open Meetings Law by not giving reasons for going into “executive session” where the public and the press are excluded. In 2019, 2020, and 2021 the CCIDA board went into executive session for 28 of 32 meetings of which 57 percent of the meeting minutes did not include a reason for the use of executive session.
The CCIDA has the same duty to honor the Open Meetings Law as does the County Legislature, and all city, village and town councils or boards. The Open Meetings Law is often known as government “in the sunshine.” There is an old saying from the famous attorney and US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1914, that “sunshine is the best of disinfectants.”
Thanks to the State Authorities Budget Office, the public and the press now knows far more about our CCIDA.
Fred Larson is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Yale Law School. He served as Chautauqua County Attorney from 1998-2005 and is a retired Jamestown City Court judge.