I Never Promised You A Rose Garden.
No, Supervisor St. Lawrence, you did not.
But good government and transparency
is really not asking too much.
By County Legislator Charles Falciglia
By now almost everyone is aware of the contaminated soil debacle involving Ramapo Supervisor, Chris St. Lawrence, and Rockland County Sewer District One. Sarah Wallace of NBC news certainly did her homework and brought the story to life with the exposure that only a major news network can provide. NBC Report #1 and NBC Report #2.
Many people have posed numerous additional questions through social media that a report with the time constraints involved cannot elaborate on. Hopefully this article can provide some deeper additional background.
By memo dated January 6 of this year to the County Executive and Director of Purchasing, from the Director of Rockland County Sewer District One, a request for an extension of an Inter-Municipal Agreement with the Town of Ramapo for removal of an estimated 35,000 cubic yards of soil was made. Whether that estimate is correct I do not know. The memo stated: “This extension of terms is needed as the work isn’t complete.”
The soil, boulders, and various other debris, were the result of sewer construction in the villages of Hillburn and Sloatsburg, circa 2009 and 2010. While an extension of an agreement is not altogether unusual, someone in the Day Administration asked the logical first question – Why hasn’t the work been completed?
For several weeks I worked on this with County Attorney, Tom Humbach, and Director of Public Policy, Stephen Powers, in the Day administration to try to make sense of what may or may not have happened. The amount of time spent was extensive and the situation is the quintessential example of why an Office of Inspector General is so necessary. Unfortunately, getting a straight answer in Rockland County can be difficult as selective amnesia is widespread.
By Resolution Number 48 of 2011, the Rockland County Legislature approved the original agreement, which, among other things, indicated the soil was contaminated under New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) standards causing restrictions on its disposal. Once removed, restoration of the sites, grading, topsoil and seeding, was part of the agreement.
The Resolution indicated that the Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority had received approval from the NYSDEC to use the soil at various locations. Bids for a contract had been solicited and the low bid of $830,000.00 was rejected as the Town of Ramapo expressed an interest in taking the job. The Resolution states:
WHEREAS, the staff of the District have met with the TOR (Town of Ramapo) and have agreed to a plan to remove the excess soil at a cost of $800,000.00 including restoration of the soil sites.
The agreement, however, raised an immediate red flag. The Town of Ramapo and Rockland County Sewer District One at the time had one common denominator, Chris St. Lawrence. While not the Chairman of the Sewer District on the execution date of the agreement, it is no secret that similar to Ramapo he was in effect a one man show; simultaneously serving on the board of the Solid Waste Management Authority.
In his interview, St. Lawrence stated that the Town of Ramapo was the low bidder. I have not seen any evidence to date to confirm that. Whether as an Inter-Municipal agreement there is no requirement to do so, allowing them to just undercut the bid, I do not know. On the surface it seems like a good deal, a benevolent act saving $30,000.00.
In May of 2016, the Legislature amended the law governing Sewer District One as it became apparent that there was insufficient oversight and that the configuration of the Board of Commissioners and selection process led to many appointments being nothing more than window dressing. This had created a vacuum allowing one man, St. Lawrence, to hold sway.
For years the Sewer District was plagued by a series of financial debacles and questionable judgment. Commissioners were paid who were not entitled to compensation, rampant cost overruns, exorbitant legal fees to a law firm donating to every Rockland elected official under the sun; coupled with the loss of two major lawsuits for millions of dollars, are just some of what we know about.
The new law was designed to create a board of equals among equals and has achieved many of its objectives. Several commissioners were removed for a variety of reasons and several were added; after undergoing a lengthy interview process. Potential commissioners are now strongly vetted. There has been a cultural change with greater participation and oversight now evident. The director must provide the Legislature with a quarterly report and appear before the body to answer any questions. Chris St. Lawrence has not attended a meeting since his indictment and has not had the decency to appoint a Ramapo Town Council member to take his place; although there would be little solace in that. The ultimate genesis of these changes was to prevent what happened in the past and to quickly and accurately resolve new issues.
The new Chairman, Clarkstown Supervisor, George Hoehmann, has brought order and direction to the District. Let me be clear, however. While the Legislature is responsible for the Sewer District, it is not the job of the Legislature to micro-manage the day to day operations. That is left up to the Director, overseen by the Commissioners. It is the function of the Legislature to oversee that the Commissioners are doing their job. As of right now this matter is in their hands.
The original agreement was for a period of six months, February 29, 2012 through August 29, 2012, a sufficient time frame to complete the job. The agreement also called for 50% of the fee, $400,000.00, to be paid to the Town of Ramapo at the time of execution; before even one shovel of soil had been removed. Payment was subject to an approvable plan in writing by the town for the removal, disposal and restoration.
A plan was submitted by letter dated March 8, 2012 by the Superintendent of Highways for the Town of Ramapo outlining what was referenced in the above paragraph. It was fairly general.
The agreement was subsequently extended from August 29, 2012 to October 31, 2013, and then extended again from October 31, 2013 to October 31, 2014. No one raised an eyebrow about why an extra year was being added each time. Now, in January of 2017, a request to extend the term from October 31, 2014 through December 31, 2017 has been made, another three plus years. I find it interesting that the last extension, October 31, 2013, was just prior to the election of Ed Day. If the normal schedule was adhered to the questions today would most likely have been previously addressed.
In addition to the above, it appears that the Legislature did not see the two contract extensions. Based on statements made by many of the Sewer Commissioners, it appears neither did they, although I am skeptical that many would have challenged St. Lawrence. Director Philips was asked by me at the last scheduled Quarterly Report if the Commissioners see all contract extensions and she acknowledged they do.
The Legislature is charged with approving any expenditure over $100,000.00, which happened in this case. Whether that applies to an extension may be subject to interpretation depending on who you speak with. What is emerging is that this seems to have stayed between Director Philips, St. Lawrence and County Executive, Scott Vanderhoef, who ultimately signed off on the extension.
So why did the management of the Sewer District keep extending the agreement?
That answer is almost too easy. For an employee of the Sewer District who exactly did you trust to go to and who exactly did you trust to take action, not an uncommon theme in general, more so with St. Lawrence involved. That should not preclude someone from stepping forward, especially now with St. Lawrence basically in exile.
As the situation continues to unfold, the disturbing thought of a cash infusion to a financially strapped town, burdened by the expense of a ballpark, engineered with no serious timetable to honor the agreement cannot be dismissed. If the first half of the job was completed, you would have to question why the Town of Ramapo would not be anxious to earn the additional $400,000.00. In the interview with Sarah Wallace, a portion of which was not played, St. Lawrence mentioned he would have to dig up (no pun intended) invoices for the work, yet there appears to be no evidence that any of the job was sub-contracted.
For several years a call for a forensic audit or a targeted look-back has been made by various elected officials and citizens regarding the finances of Sewer District One and the Board under the leadership of Supervisor Hoehmann of Clarkstown has now decided to move forward. They also are acting to determine the status of the $400,000.00, test the soil and remove same.
I have conveyed my feelings to some of the Commissioners. The statement by Director Philips that this became Ramapo’s problem despite signing off on three extensions is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. When the Board of Commissioners was reconstituted, to maintain some form of continuity, wholesale changes could not be made. New elections this year may and will see new Commissioners.
I would suggest that one or two of the current commissioners consider resignation.