Thursday, December 28, 2006

At Gargano’s valedictory, transparency on AY still hard to find

As valedictories go, it was rather subdued, lasting less than 40 minutes, with only a bit of real news. But Charles Gargano, for 12 years the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the man who led fundraising for Governor George Pataki, is still canny after all these years.

With the advent of a new gubernatorial administration next week, Gargano has already left his job, but he visited the ESDC’s 633 Third Avenue office yesterday for a press conference his agency organized. Gargano neither tried to settle scores (remember, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, no ethical paragon, called him “corrupt”) nor catalog his challenges and achievements, such as the struggle to rebuild Ground Zero.

Rather, Gargano made himself available to the media, as he has long done, declared his desire to continue to help “this great city and state,” and took the opportunity to urge his successors to move ahead with the expansion of the Javits Convention Center and especially Moynihan Station. (Most questions concerned the latter project, which the Pataki administration is still trying to push, as the Sun, Daily News, Post , and Metro reported.)

When asked some tough Atlantic Yards questions, Gargano, for the most part, deflected them. Perhaps a cross-examination might have drilled down farther, but his answers spoke for themselves, depicting an agency for which transparency has not been a high priority.

Cordial and dapper, Gargano sat calmly at the head of the boardroom table. (His hair is snowier than in this photo and he seems thinner--older but more fit.) The seats at the table, usually occupied by ESDC board members and staff, this time were taken by scruffier folk scribbling in notebooks. Four staffers sat quietly in chairs flanking a side wall. A battery of three cameras faced Gargano from the end of the long table.

“Great news” on AY

Gargano brought up Atlantic Yards in his opening remarks:
Recently, we had great news that Atlantic Yards was approved. I know there were many issues that we were dealing with. One thing we did know, that it was a great project for the city of New York. We tried to address all of the concerns of the public, and those living in the community. And I hope we did a good job with that. I think we did. You can’t satisfy everyone, but we try to satisfy most of the concerns—the people, I should say, and address the concerns that were brought to our attention.

The PACB vote

I cited the flurry of activity last week, as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, according to the Times, was delivered numerous ESDC documents in the days before the December 20 approval by the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB).

Q. I know there were some documents delivered to Silver in the last couple of days before the PACB vote. Can you describe what those documents were, and when they will be made public?

A: Well, generally, what we do is, any questions that are asked by the Assembly staffers who are working with Mr. Silver, we provide answers to all of those questions—that’s an ongoing process. And that’s exactly what we want the process to be, so we can clear up any lack of understanding of the project, or problems with understanding the project. So I don’t know which docs you’re referring to specifically, there have been many.

Q: My understanding, from reading one press account, is that there is a more full account of the net new revenues. I know that there was a five or six page memo that was released in the week after the December 8 meeting, but I’m told that there’s a more full analysis of the net new revenues.

A: Well, we do provide full analysis of the financial part of the project—there’s no question about it. If there were was some additional information required, that’s what we forward—

Q: When would that be made public?

Eileen Mildenberger, the ESDC’s Chief Operating Officer, responded from the wings:
We gave that to them on the basis of a confidentiality agreement, so we’re not sure that it is going to be made public.

Gargano picked up the thread:
This is a confidentiality agreement that we have with the developer itself. Naturally, the members of the PACB need that information for them to make a decision, but we are under a confidentiality agreement with the developer.

Tax revenue drop

Later I brought up the curious twist in the Atlantic Yards review.

Q. I’m thinking back on the December 8 meeting when the ESDC board approved Atlantic Yards, and later we figured out that the net new tax revenue had gone down by about half a billion dollars. Why did the board not discuss that, as an issue, in terms of its deliberations? Or did it, and not do it in public?

A: Well, the board members receive all of this information in advance of our meeting. Usually, we try to give the information to them one week before to give them as much time as possible to review all of this information and call into the agency for clarification or any kind of information they need about it. So the board members don’t necessarily have to discuss it at the board meetings unless they have additional questions, because a lot of this goes on—I get many calls before our board meetings and many of our senior staff people and our general counsel and our finance people get questions from our board members about what’s going to be on the agenda.

Q: So can you characterize the discussion of that issue before the meeting?

Gargano stumbled a bit, though not as much as he had on the Brian Lehrer Show earlier this month when asked about eminent domain.

A: Uh, yes, there were—there were—there were questions, about it and obviously, it was explained that there was a reduction in the project size, there was a reduction, specifically in the commercial part of it, which yielded more revenue than residential. All of these things were explained to the, uh, those who might have had questions, members of the board.

Given that one board member had trouble identifying Pacific Street, it’s hard to imagine they drilled down to this issue, which was hardly flagged in ESDC documents. And no one at the ESDC has explained publicly how an 8% percent reduction in the size of the project leads to an 18% reduction in construction employment.

FEIS responses?

After the press conference had officially concluded, Gargano stood up to shake some hands and take a few more questions. I brought up one more Atlantic Yards issue, and Gargano played it well.

Q: So, on December 8, a bunch of press went back into your office and we asked you some questions. And I had asked about the nine letters that were received after the Final Environmental Impact Statement, that were apparently included in that package, and there was an internal response to those letters, and, I have on tape—I’m not playing it for you now—I said, “Can I get a copy of those letters” and you said, “Of course.” And I asked [spokeswoman] Jessica [Copen], and she said, file a Freedom of Information Law request.

A: That’s what I mean by “of course,” file the—

Q: I like that.

A: Sometimes things come out, y’know, we all make little mistakes here and there.

Q: The impression I got was, yeah, I’d get it, not I’d have to file--

A: As far I’m concerned, whatever is the legal way of doing it, do it.

Q: Thank you for your time. See you in Brooklyn.

(Gargano often mentions that he grew up in Park Slope and, of course, our colloquy concerned Brooklyn's biggest construction project.)

A: Okay, yes.

Reconfiguring the ESDC

Gargano has been careful about not offering many public comments about the incoming administration but, when prompted, did offer some observations about the agency.

Q: My understanding is that the governor-elect plans to reconfigure the ESDC, with a downstate/upstate directorship and perhaps other changes. Do you have any thoughts on how that would work, whether it’s a good idea, general advice for them?

A: I believe that, in any organization such as this, there has to be one chairman… Number two, we have regional offices in all parts of the state, and we strengthened those regional offices 12 years ago to give them greater autonomy…. It really is a decision by the new administration on how they want to handle upstate-downstate. I will say that, thanks to the Governor’s policies, upstate is doing quite well, as you move from downstate to upstate here on the east coast. But when you move west, there are some difficulties, in the western part of upstate, because of manufacturing jobs that were lost. But I think, with the new centers of excellence, it’s amazing to me no one’s focused on it, but you will, I guarantee you… The centers of excellence are attracting a lot of high-tech industries, not only in Buffalo, in bioinformatics, but in Rochester, in photonics, and of course in Schenectady/Albany with nanotechnology. So there is a lot of high-tech interest in upstate New York and hopefully that will create new jobs.

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