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August 17 Planning and Economic Development meeting was democracy in action

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The future of economic development in Allegany County

Local journalist provides a civics lesson to the legislature

By Andrew Harris

As anticipated by many, the highlight of the August 17 deliberations in the Allegany County Legislature was the Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting. Not only was the discussion and decision making newsworthy, but the committee was challenged by the press which was educational and impactful.

The meeting, led by committee Vice-Chairman Gary Barnes, was dominated by the discussion of the future of Allegany County’s contractual relationship with Alfred State College. That contract, which provides the services of economic development professional Dr. Craig Clark, is set to expire at the end of this month. Legislators have until the end of the month to chart a path forward, with or without Dr. Clark.

The committee was presented with a resolution that would have renewed the contract with Alfred State for a limited amount of time, allowing County Administrator Carissa Knapp to negotiate with Alfred State College. As Barnes opened the discussion about the contract, Legislator Jennifer Ricketts Swales quickly requested that the committee close the meeting to the public for an “executive session,” and the motion was seconded by Legislator Gretchen Hanchett. That means the camera gets turned off and anyone but the committee, other legislators, and county administration must leave the room. The board voted unanimously to enter into executive session when a voice from the back of the room spoke up.

Casey Jones, Editor of the community news Facebook page, “Allegany Hope,” was in attendance and immediately challenged the move to exclude the public. Jones, who can be described as a “stickler” on this subject, told the board:

“I object on two grounds. Number one, the motion that is being made is to broad, it’s not specific enough to identify the business that is being conducted. Number two, based upon the resolution that is being introduced as I understand it: A one year renewal of a contract with Alfred State, you have a situation which you have two governmental bodies. As a result of that, this should not be an executive session to discuss interchanges between two governmental bodies.”

This admonition from the press changed the coarse of the meeting entirely and educated many in the room.

Legislator Adam Cyr immediately spoke up and said, “I actually agree with that. Can we get advice on this law from our county attorney?”

County Attorney Allison Carrow, who was in attendance, advised the board that it was best to not go into executive session but that Legislator Cyr’s question did allowed for a “client-attorney session.” The previous committee vote to move into executive session was retracted and the committee entered a “client-attorney session.” The difference between the two “sessions” is strictly in name only. All press and public must leave the room, only elected legislators, the county administrator, and county attorney may be present.

The challenge by the media and a legislator who reversed course upon receiving better information was beautiful democracy in action.

When the committee emerged from the client-attorney session, members quickly voted to extend the contract with Alfred State for 60 days, with pro-rated pay. During the discussion, Legislator Brooke Harris asked the county attorney to clarify that this resolution would have to be approved by other committees, namely one he chairs, Ways and Means, before being adopted.

“There is opportunity to amend the contract back to a longer term correct?”

Attorney Allison Carrow replied, “Yes, that is correct.”

Clearly the matter is not settled but time is running out for the county to decide on how its future economic development department will look and what the county relationship with SUNY Alfred State will be. Legislators will be working behind the scenes and in open public session again on August 24.

Casey Jones, Editor of the community Facebook page “Allegany Hope” has created a new “Open Government Forum.” Read more about that project soon on the Wellsville Sun and how you can get involved.

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