Aug 08, 2013 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
The Cazenovia Town Board last week interviewed the three final architectural firm candidates for the planned renovation work to the Gothic Cottage to get a sense of which firm may be the best fit for the town’s project. The interviews, which lasted about an hour each, were closed to the public and the press by a split vote of the board, although board members said they plan to discuss the issue publicly at their next regular monthly meeting on Monday, Aug. 12.
While the board’s decision to take the interviews into executive session was in accordance with the New York State Open Meetings Law, the way in which the action was taken violated that law by not detailing the specific reason(s) for the executive session, according to the state Committee on Open Government.
No votes were taken or official decisions made by the town board about which architecture firm to select as a result of last week’s meetings. The official board vote on the architect choice is expected to occur at the board’s Aug. 12 regular monthly meeting.
The Gothic Cottage, built in 1847 as a home for Henry Ten Eyck and his wife Elizabeth, needs a total reconstruction of the interior to make it a more functional and user-friendly workplace and public meeting area. The renovation project is expected to include exterior and surface repairs to the roof, walls and windows, as well as improved office and public meeting areas, records storage, air conditioning and heating, electrical capability and handicapped accessibility.
Town officials have been considering a remodeling of the Gothic Cottage since 2006, when a capital reserve fund — also called the “future of the town office fund” — was established. The fund currently has a balance of about $600,000.
The town board decided this past February to officially move forward with renovation plans, and issued a Request for Qualifications from interested architectural firms on April 15. The RFQ was not a call for contractor bids but a request for interested architectural and preservation firms to present their ideas on how best to plan and undertake the renovation and improvement project.
The board previously has stated its decision on which firm to hire will be based on qualifications and ideas for the project and not on project pricing.
The town received numerous responses from firms in New York City, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, from which the board narrowed its choices to the top three firms. Those firms — Landmark Consulting, of Albany; Crawford & Stearns Architects, of Syracuse; and Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates, of Syracuse — met with the town board last week for face-to-face interviews to discuss their visions for the renovation project.
The first two interviews were held Monday, July 29, during which the board interviewed representatives from Landmark Consulting and Crawford & Stearns separately. The third firm of Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates was interviewed Wednesday, July 31.
All three interviews were held as executive sessions of the town board, which meant the members of the public and press were barred from the discussions.
While the Cazenovia Republican was not present for the interviews, Town Supervisor Ralph Monforte said afterward they were “generic” conversations of each firms’ architectural project experiences and project visions to see if there was any “chemistry” between the firm representatives and the town board.
“It was very informative; all the firms were obviously qualified and I don’t think we can make a mistake with any one,” Monforte said, adding that all also were “very sensitive” to the town’s concerns about the historical integrity of the Gothic Cottage and the need to keep project costs reasonable.
All firms also said they would meet with town residents and stakeholders involved in the property in at least one public meeting to make sure everyone feels comfortable with their architectural plans, Monforte said.
Town Councilor Bill Zupan, who is running — currently unopposed — for Cazenovia Town Supervisor this November, agreed that all three potential architecture firms were “impressive” in their presentations and offered assurances that they intend to seek public input in at least one public meeting to discuss the renovations plans.
No financial issues were discussed during the interviews and the town will not have any hard figures for project costs until an architect is hired and renovation plans are created, Zupan said.
Monforte said that where the town offices eventually end up is, in fact, a “million-dollar question” because whether the town board decides to stay and renovate the Gothic Cottage or leave and build a new home, either choice will potentially cost about $1 million.
The bottom line, he said, is: “Should we spend it there [at Gothic Cottage] or elsewhere?”
Monforte said to find a new location to build a modern town hall —on a site such as the Trush property — would be “a great idea and a great utilization of that property and a huge improvement to the whole community.”
While it is still too early in the process for cost estimates to come out on the possible Gothic Cottage renovation, Monforte said it will only be after the board sees the “real costs” of the project that it will be able to decide the best course of action to take.
For this reason, the board intends to ask whoever gets the architectural contract to provide the town with not just a building assessment, but also a work space assessment and a historic assessment, Monforte said.
The building assessment will identify the general structural deficiencies and renovation needs for the entire building, which the town would be obligated to undertake anyway if it decided to ultimately sell the building and move out; the work space assessment would examine how to renovate the interior while also allowing the best space utilization possible for the necessary municipal offices in the space; while the historic assessment will identify the significant historic aspects of the Gothic Cottage, how those aspects can be preserved and protected and also help identify possible state and federal grants to help fund the project.
“It will be interesting to see the financial commitment that needs to be made [for the project],” Monforte said. “If it costs $600,000 we probably won’t leave; if it costs $1 million it will be an interesting conversation; if it costs more such as $1.4 million, then we’ll have to really think hard.”
The choices before the town board “run the gamut from stabilizing the outside of the building and finding an alternate use for it, building a new town office or we renovate the Gothic Cottage to accommodate the town offices,” Zupan said. “I have an open mind on the whole process. I want to let the professionals look and give us guidance on this.”
Town Councilor Liz Moran, who is the board’s point person in the Gothic Cottage project, said that while any option is still open to the board as to what action to take on the Gothic Cottage, renovation work must be done to stabilize the overall structure, since walls, windows and roof are all deteriorating and need to be fixed.
“But the best option could be to just walk away and build new,” Moran said. “We’ll figure it out. We have good people working with us.”
According to Monforte, all three potential firms have indicated that to achieve the building usage that the town board desires, any project will have to alter the existing space inside the Gothic Cottage as well as build an addition onto the back of the house. Since the town needs meeting rooms, a town court room and updated electric, plumbing, air and heating and handicapped accessibility, a structural addition would be easier and more cost effective for the project, Monforte said.
Monforte said he suggested to the board that instead of expanding the town offices the town should hold its municipal meetings as well as its town court sessions in the village municipal offices on Albany Street, which has enough room to accommodate them, and retain the office space in the Gothic Cottage. Then, the town would only have to do the structural improvements to the Gothic Cottage and not the major additions and upgrades.
“I think we need to see what the cost of the proposals will be and see of those costs are in line with what we need to accomplish — if we need to accomplish anything at all,” Monforte said. “What I’ve been trying to do is just to keep the project as cost-effective to the community as possible.”
Violates open meetings law
When the town board voted to take both nights’ meetings into executive session and thereby exclude the public and press — one town resident was present and had to leave and others had been told not to come because the meetings would be held in executive session — it did so for a lawful reason but in an unlawful way, said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
“An executive session can be held only to the extent there is a valid basis for closing the doors. A meeting must be held open to the public unless and until there is a valid ground for excluding the public,” Freeman said.
According to the state Open Meetings Law, there are nine reasons a municipal board may move into executive session, including to discuss “the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.” The executive session must be approved by a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting “pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered.”
The board opened the Monday meeting publicly, after which Zupan made the motion to go into executive session, saying it would be more cumbersome to go in and out of executive sessions to discuss any “financial issues” that may come up rather than make the entire meeting an executive session. Councilor Liz Moran seconded his motion.
Before the vote, Monforte asked the representatives of Landmark Consulting if their presentation would include any discussion of contracts or finances — typical executive session items — and the representatives said no. Monforte then suggested the board keep the meeting open and only go into executive session if any financial or contractual issues needed to be addressed.
The board voted 4-1 to go into executive session and close the meeting, with Monforte voting no and the rest of the board voting yes.
“I didn’t feel that anything in the conversation to come up would have needed to be confidential, and I feel I was proven right by the end of the interviews — there was nothing [discussed] that couldn’t have been heard by the general public,” Monforte said. “I don’t think the process necessarily had to be excluded from the typically minimal public involvement that usually shows up at town meetings. But that was the board’s vote.”
When the board interviewed representatives from the third firm, Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates, on Wednesday, July 31, the board members again voted to go into executive session for the discussions for the “same reasons as Monday.” The vote was 3-1 with Monforte again voting no and Councilor Pat Race absent.
Freeman said the board erred when it did not sufficiently explain the specific reason it went into executive session.
“The law requires a reason to go into executive session — to say possible ‘financial issues’ just doesn’t tell us enough,” Freeman said. “If they actually read the law they would have recognized they did have a valid reason for going into executive session. The law says a board may do so to discuss matters leading to the employment of a particular corporation. They could have done this legally. This scenario demonstrates that the board simply does not know enough as it should about the Open Meetings Law. Its failure to fully comply with that law led to questions that need not have been raised.”
The next meeting of the town board will be at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, during which the Gothic Cottage project is scheduled to be discussed and an architectural firm choice voted on.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.