Empty benches

Airport lease agreement kept behind closed doors

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 12/30/21

MONTICELLO, NY — Under normal circumstances, little news is made at a meeting that doesn't happen. But such things can happen in Sullivan County a week before the legislative …

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Empty benches

Airport lease agreement kept behind closed doors

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — Under normal circumstances, little news is made at a meeting that doesn't happen. But such things can happen in Sullivan County a week before the legislative reorganization. 

The meeting in question was an emergency meeting of the Sullivan County Legislature's Public Works Committee, held so that the committee could discuss a lease agreement at the Sullivan County International Airport. 

Back in September, the legislature had authorized chairman Rob Doherty to enter into a land lease agreement with Hatzolah Air, a non-profit that provides air transportation for medical emergencies, humanitarian aid and disaster relief worldwide. Hatzolah Air was looking to construct a 20,000 square foot hanger and a "world headquarters" of the same dimensions on land at the airport, leased from the county. 

The lease agreement was signed by Doherty on Monday, December 6. The public works committee aimed to meet on Wednesday, December 29 to discuss its terms. 

But four of the committee's seven members failed to show up, leaving the meeting without a quorum. 

A meeting un-broadcasted

Five members of the nine-person legislature showed up for the emergency meeting: Joe Perello (chair of the public works committee), Alan Sorensen, Ira Steingart, Luis Alvarez and Nadia Rajsz. But Rajsz and Alvarez were only there to observe—they weren't members of the public works committee, and didn't count toward the quorum. 

Because the committee didn't have a quorum, all it could do after opening the meeting was close it. It recessed the meeting until 8:55 a.m. on Tuesday, January 4, just before the legislature's reorganizational meeting. 

Once the meeting closed, the cameras that were recording and broadcasting the meeting shut off; all discussion afterward took place out of the public eye.

The lack of a public record was the reason why the committee's other members didn't show up, claimed Steingart, calling it a move carried out by Doherty. 

"The reorg is coming up, and I think this is critical to get out there," Steingart said. "And to be quite frank, it's clear that the rest of them didn't show up so that this would not be on the internet—another manipulative move that this group is handling."

The whole business should inform his peers' votes at the reorganizational meeting, Steingart added. 

According to frequent public commentator Ken Walter, the lack of a quorum was not an infrequent occasion; with committees having a majority of Republican members, they couldn't have a quorum if Doherty said no. 

Only two of the county's 11 standing committees currently are majority Democratic, the Parks, Agriculture and Sustainability Policy Committee and the Veterans Committee. 

An agreement un-examined

Legislators also discussed a lack of transparency in the process of signing the agreement. 

The agreement itself had been negotiated and signed primarily by Doherty, with other legislators hearing details of the agreement only after it had been signed, several legislators said. While they had nothing against Hatzolah Air, and saw the hanger as a good project for the county, they had concerns about that process of signing. 

"This is nothing against the tenant at all," said Perello. "This is all about the procedures and the process of how we do things in this county."

Doherty had drafted the agreement without input from involved department heads, said Perello, such as public works commissioner Ed McAndrews and airport superintendent Jim Arnott. He was concerned that the county could not meet the obligations Doherty had agreed to. 

McAndrews and Arnott both indicated that the airport might need more staff and more equipment to meet the agreement's obligations. But the airport would accommodate whatever it had to, said McAndrews; the agreement itself was a policy decision that wasn't in his hands.

Specific clauses of the agreement also came under fire. 

The annual rent paid by Hatzolah Air for the lease was written in the contract as $18. Steingart said he'd asked county attorney Mike Mcguire about that figure, and had been told that it should be $18,000. "Whether it was intentional or a typo, excluding everybody else from the process certainly allows for something like that to happen."

Steingart also had concerns about the length of the lease. 

The lease agreement stated that the term of the lease would be 30 years, with Hatzolah Air having the option for three renewals of 30 years each; those renewals would automatically occur unless Hatzolah Air gave the county a non-renewal notice. 

"How do you run a county where one person agrees to a contract for up to 120 years and does not share that with his peers?" asked Steingart. "That shows a total lack of [respect], and also to be quite frank, I'm not being able to represent my constituents in a fair way because I'm being excluded."

In the meeting's public comment period, Walter pointed out a number of his own concerns with the agreement. "I find the contract is sloppy," he said. There was no escalation in the contract, raising rates to account for inflation; the language of the contract did not stipulate that Hatzolah Air had to buy fuel from the county; and the language in the contract's non-discrimination clauses could be improved. 

Steingart concluded the meeting by calling attention back to the four legislators who hadn't shown up, a group whom he claimed often voted in a block. "I hope the public and… the Republican party puts pressure on these gentlemen for the way they're acting. It's not professional, it's not good for the county, and there needs to be some pushback."

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