‘No reason’ given for move to replace two county planning board members

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Dominic Rigosu, right, listens along with a packed house on May 13, 2019 to Laura Travison, who was then the Albany County Planning Board’s senior planner. At that meeting, the planning board voted to disapprove Pyramid’s proposed 222-unit apartment-and-townhouse complex on Rapp Road, next to Crossgates Mall.

ALBANY COUNTY — Two members of the county’s planning board were slated for replacement without their knowledge.

Both Enzo Sofia, an engineer, and Dominic Rigosu, an architect who had acted as chairman of the planning board, told The Enterprise on Friday that they did not know about their planned dismissals until they heard from Albany County Legislator Mark Grimm.

Grimm called them because he saw a resolution in the agenda for the Oct. 12 meeting, saying they would be replaced on the county’s planning board and naming two replacements: Gary Ginsburg of Glenmont and Elisabeth Pezzolla Draper of Menands.

Sofia said, after hearing from Grimm, he discussed it with Rigosu and they decided a dismissal would look bad on their résumés so, instead, they would resign. The updated county resolution said that the vacancies existed “due to the resignations.”

A half-dozen residents objected to the dismissals during the legislature’s Tuesday meeting, which was conducted online.

Several of the speakers were members of the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth and speculated the dismissals had to do with a May 13, 2019 planning board vote against Pyramid’s proposal to build a 222-unit apartment complex on Rapp Road near Crossgates Mall. That project, with Guilderland Planning Board approval, and an overturned court stay, is proceeding along with a Pyramid plan to build a Costco.

“I’m the lead sponsor and I can assure you that this action is not punishment for a vote that occurred in 2019 ....,” said Andrew Joyce, who chairs the legislature. “The two individuals that we’re replacing on the planning board have resigned.”

Joyce said that “a fresh perspective is needed” and that “a diverse viewpoint from different parts of Albany County” is needed. In the last year-and-a-half, the board has had two new members.

Joyce, a Democrat, represents parts of Albany, Slingerlands, and North Bethlehem.

Matthew Peter, a Democrat serving Albany neighborhoods including Washington Park, Center Square, and Pine Hills, is the other sponsor of the resolution.

“These two members served at the pleasure of the majority leader and there have been numerous complaints in my district and many others of these individuals ….,” said Peter.

“There’s this obsession with the Pine Bush, fair enough, but there’s actually things that the county planning board’s done that have been harmful in other districts and, when it’s been called to question, the answers on individuals have actually been completely unprofessional and stopped development and tried to overrule localities,” said Peter.

“Just to clarify for everyone, this is an Albany County Legislature appointment, not the majority leader,” said Joyce.

Other legislators responded to the public comments and ultimately decided further review, by the personnel committee, was warranted. No vote on the resolution was taken.

“Such change on the floor rarely happens,” Grimm wrote in an email to The Enterprise. Grimm, a Republican, represents part of Guilderland.

The county’s planning board is made up of five unpaid voting members appointed by the legislature and three ex officio members who can deliberate with the board but don’t vote: the county comptroller, and the commissioners of public works and of management and budget.

 

“No reason”

“There’s no reason,” Sofia told The Enterprise of the dismissals. 

“My guess is it’s political … I’m a professional engineer for the past 35 years; he’s an architect.” Sofia, who said he’d served on the county’s planning board for four or five years, has both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“We’re technical people,” Sofia said of himself and Rigosu. “We make decisions based on evidence, on technical knowledge so the community doesn’t suffer with problems such as traffic, such as drainage.”

He gave the example of dangerous driving on the Ring Road at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland.

Sofia said he had worked as the deputy commissioner for the Albany County Department of Public Works, a job he left because, he said, “Politics doesn’t fit in with my ethics …. I didn’t need the aggravation.”

He’s worked for GE Power for 27 years and, four years ago, he opened his own company, Sofia Engineering LLC. “I’m busy, which means I’m doing a good job,” he said.

Sofia went on, “I’m pro-growth myself.” Sofia said he had “no idea” why he would be replaced but speculated that both he and Rigosu hadn’t agreed with a moratorium proposed in Bethlehem. “Moratoriums should be for new applicants,” he said.

Asked why he didn’t fight the dismissal, Sofia said, “We serve at the pleasure of the legislature, being appointed to the position. That’s why we had to resign without a fight.”

Rigosu is the principal architect of RIDA Architecture PLLC in Westmere and has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the New York Institute of Technology and a master of architecture degree from the University at Buffalo. He served on the county’s planning board since August 2008, more than 13 years.

Rigosu said he would not speculate on what votes — like the one on the Bethlehem moratorium that Sofia mentioned or the one on Pyramid’s proposal for 222 apartments and a Costco in Guilderland that town residents had cited — could have led to the dismissals.

The Enterprise read both Rigosu and Sofia the reasons cited in the county’s bylaws, adopted in 2020, for removal of planning board members: unlawful conflict of interest; violation of rules; inability to carry out duties; inappropriate actions or behavior; absence from fifty percent or more of meetings within a calendar year; or failure to meet the mandatory training requirements. 

Like Sofia, Rigosu said, “None of those apply.”

Asked, then, why he would resist being fired, Rigosu said, “Sometimes you’re fighting deaf ears. This is a voluntary position. I’ve been volunteering my time for 13 years.”

He said he had not seen the video of Tuesday’s county legislature meeting although others had told him about it. “Your blood boils a little bit, so I didn’t watch it,” he said.

Told that Joyce had said one of the reasons for the new appointments was to diversify the board geographically, Rigosu responded, “We are spread out.”

He told The Enterprise that the board members had come from different parts of the county: He lives in Guilderland, Sofia lives in Colonie, Brian Crawford lives in the Hilltowns, Travon Jackson lives in Albany, and Gerry Engstrom lives in Voorheesville.

Rigosu also said that he is not anti-growth. “I’m an architect. I design buildings. We’re there to develop. We express our concerns,” he said of his role on the planning board.

He also noted that, if a municipality wanted a project, it could override the county planning board’s decision. “Any municipality can overrule us by supermajority vote,” he said.

A supermajority vote on a board is a majority plus one so, for example, on a town planning board with seven members, it would take five members to override the county’s recommendation.

 

Public comment

Lynne Jackson, a founder of the advocacy group Save the Pine Bush, was the first to speak to the legislators about the dismissals on Tuesday night.

She said of Rigosu and Sofia, “Their vote upheld the principle of protecting the Pine Bush and I think it’s really important that we look at Pine Bush protection and people should not be replaced on the planning board because of their votes.”

Laurel Bohl, a Guilderland town board member, said her constituents are concerned about why two long-time planning board members are being let go.

“I honestly didn’t agree on everything they did. But they did have the experience to do the job,” she said.

Bohl said she was concerned it had happened so quickly and asked it be referred to committee before any decision was made.

Steve Wickham, who has been active in the Guilderland coalition, said he was concerned about “replacing very experienced and qualified members of the planning board with two people who seem to be very inexperienced and unqualified.”

Ginsburg has been the director of Senate Services since February and, before that, since 2013, was press secretary for the Democratic Conference. He has two degrees from Norwich University: a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in public administration.

He could not be reached by The Enterprise.

Draper told The Enterprise on Friday morning that she’d call back but she did not. The Enterprise subsequently received a call from Nicole Antonucci, director of communications for the Office of the Chair of the Albany County Legislature, asking why Draper had been called.

Told that The Enterprise was trying to reach both Ginsburg and Draper to find out about the process by which they were selected and their views on planning, Antonucci said, “I’ll see what I can do.” No responses from the Office of the Chair or from Ginsburg and Draper were forthcoming.

Wickham concluded his comments to the legislators, “This does not seem to be a move to improve things but rather punish people for their previous votes.”

Karen White, who is also active with the coalition, said, “We need to know why this action is being proposed because I have watched while both of these individuals have done their job with a high degree of professionalism. They’ve been approachable to the public and I have not seen any missteps whatsoever.”

White noted their “technical background” and said, next to the appointees, “There’s no comparison in my mind.”

She concluded, “It needs to be explained because every resident in Albany County stands to lose if these two individuals are replaced by the two individuals that you are nominating.”

Gordon McClelland, also of Guilderland, asked, “What’s behind all of this? It almost sounds to me as if somebody did not like the message so they decided to go ahead and shoot the messengers.”

He also asked, “Why is Gary Ginsburg being appointed when he has absolutely no experience in planning whatsoever? … All of his skills are in the communications area.”

Finally, McClelland said, “We need some transparency and I think the Albany County legislature needs to sit down and take a look at itself and figure out just exactly what is going on. Is this a political maneuver on the part of somebody regarding some issues that they have concerns with or is it reality, truly a professional transfer of these two positions? What’s the real thing that’s behind all this?”

Finally, Robyn Gray, who chairs the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth, said that Sofia and Rigosu are “extremely professional” and base their decisions on “the evidence in front of them.”

She went on, “I question whether they actually resigned or whether they were terminated … They certainly are without favoritism. They go right to the heart of the matter.”

 

Legislators weigh in

“Quite frankly, it’s very harmful and hurtful to have two very qualified, upstanding public servants having their names be dragged through the mud,” Joyce said at the conclusion of the public comments, referencing Draper and Ginsburg.

“The two individuals that we’re replacing on the planning board have resigned,” he went on. “They’ve served on the planning board for a long time and it’s time for a fresh perspective and a new perspective, and these two members that we’re looking to appoint tonight are excellent choices. We need a diversity of opinion. We need a diverse viewpoint from different parts of Albany County — Menands and Bethlehem.”

Joyce also said, “This misinformation that’s being spread tonight, you know it’s very problematic and it’s hurtful and it’s harmful to have these two individuals that are looking to stand up and fill these two vacant positions on the planning board have their names dragged through on lies and misinformation, which is what this is.”

Grimm then said he would break Joyce’s rule by responding. Grimm explained to The Enterprise later that Joyce has a consistent rule that no member of the legislature can comment on what public forum speakers say during the forum. “He broke his own rule when he challenged what the speakers had to say. That’s why I broke his rule in order to respond,” Grimm said.

At the Oct. 12 session, Grimm said he had called Sofia and Rigosu when he saw the agenda and “they were surprised to learn that they had been replaced.”

“Now the following week they resigned because they thought it would be better to resign than be dismissed but to say they resigned is a misrepresentation,” said Grimm. “They were dismissed from the board without their knowledge and even without their notification. So I think that needs to be made clear here.”

“Words are important, Mr. Grimm,” responded Joyce. “They were not dismissed. The facts are that they resigned from their positions on the Albany County Planning Board. Those are the facts.”

“They resigned four days after they were dismissed in a resolution,” Grimm reiterated.

“That’s exactly what happened, they resigned,” responded Joyce. “Mr. Grimm, I’ve got Ms. Cunningham,” he said, calling on Joanne Cunningham, a Democrat representing Delmar.

Cunningham asked if their term was up.

“No, no their term was not up,” said Joyce, reiterating his view that “new vision” and “fresh perspective” was needed on the board.

Cunningham asked what would have happened if Sofia and Rigosu hadn’t resigned and Joyce responded they would be replaced on the planning board.

“Their hand was forced,” said Cunningham.

“I don’t think we forced anyone to do anything,” said Joyce.

Cunningham said she knew Ginsburg and praised him, noting her comments were “no reflection on the skills and talents” of Ginsburg and Draper but said it was unusual to get six speakers “highlighting this” and it’s worth a discussion to find out what’s going on.

“The point is, Joanne, they serve at the pleasure of the legislature,” said Joyce. “There is no fixed term.”

Cunningham said people on such boards usually serve unless “they do something so horrifying that, you know, their name is in the newspaper and they’re hiring lawyers or something but I just find this a little strange.”

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