When something is transparent, you can see what’s behind it

“Transparency” is a buzzword used these days by politicians from every party and of every ideology. It’s been used in each one of our candidates’ forums this local election year.

Speaking the word is easy but not useful unless there is follow through.

To be transparent, a government — made up of elected leaders — must be honest and must share information with its citizens. The decision-making process should be openly disclosed. 

On Tuesday, Oct. 12, a handful Guilderland citizens spoke out to hold their county government accountable.

The process to replace two county planning board members had been shrouded in mystery. Albany County Legislator Mark Grimm shed a beam of light on the dark procedure.

Before we get into the details, it’s important to see the big picture. Planning boards — in each of our municipalities and at the county level — do important work. Many of the board members, as on the county level, are unpaid. 

They volunteer their time and expertise to review proposals and explore what could affect the common good. 

In New York, the state’s General Municipal Law requires local municipalities to refer certain development applications, proposed zoning changes, and comprehensive plans to the county planning board for review, comment, and recommendations before taking final action.

The law allows local decision-makers to consider the effects their projects might have on the county at large; it lends a regional perspective to local land-use decisions. The process also allows municipalities with no professional planning staff to use planning expertise at the county level and helps the county planning board follow development trends throughout the county.

Albany County has five voting members on its planning board, appointed by the legislature, as well as three ex officio members who deliberate with the board but don’t vote.

Two of those voting members were Dominic Rigosu, an architect, and Enzo Sofia, an engineer. They were forced out of their jobs without being given any reason or even any notification.

They both found out they were to be replaced when Grimm called them, having seen a resolution that would replace them on the agenda for the Oct. 12 meeting of the county legislature.

“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.”

Sofia told us, 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.”

“Their hand was forced,” one county legislator, Joanne Cunningham, correctly asserted.

The question is: Why?

Citizens who had watched these two planning board members in action spoke up about their fairness, lack of favoritism, technical expertise, professionalism, accessibility to the public, and more.

We looked up the county bylaws for the planning board, adopted in 2020, and found these are the reasons 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 told us, “None of those apply.”

The Enterprise regularly covers county planning board meetings and we believe we would have known if one of those criteria were met. The bylaws also list these reasons for a vacancy: death, resignation, disability. None of those apply either.

The citizens called their government to account directly and eloquently.

One, Gordon McClelland, who lives in Guilderland, 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?”

Andrew Joyce, lead sponsor of the resolution to replace Sofia and Riguso, insisted, “The two individuals that we’re replacing on the planning board have resigned.”

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

That is not a resignation. 

Joyce scolded those who spoke out, saying, “Quite frankly, it’s very harmful and hurtful to have two very qualified, upstanding public servants having their names be dragged through the mud.”

He was not referring to the two professionals who had volunteered years of their time and expertise only to be dismissed without cause. He was talking about the two replacement candidates. The worst that was said about them was they lacked the expertise of the two ousted members.

Joyce also said “a new perspective” was needed on the board although it has had two new members in the last year-and-a-half. And many local planning boards have long-time members, which are often considered an asset. Guilderland, for example, has had the same planning board chairman since 2000. Sofia said he’d served on the county board for four or five years and Rugosa had been on the board for 13 years.

Joyce said, too, that diverse viewpoints were needed from different parts of the county although the former board had members from Guilderland (Rigosu), Colonie (Sofia), the Hilltowns, Albany, and Voorheesville. The new candidates are from Glenmont and Menands.

Most troubling, though, was Joyce’s insistence that “lies and misinformation” were being spread.

As we’ve written in this space before, misinformation often fills a vacuum. What citizens were asking for was true information.

“Words are important, Mr. Grimm,” Joyce said, insisting that Sofia and Rigosu were not dismissed. “The facts are they resigned from their positions on the Albany County Planning Board.”

Words are, indeed, important. Saying that Sofia and Rigosu resigned does not tell the whole story; it is not a transparent explanation. They were forced from their jobs.

When Cunningham remarked on this, Joyce said, “I don’t think we forced anyone to do anything.”

We disagree and we believe the public deserves to know why.

The other sponsor of the resolution, Matthew Peter, may have gotten closer to the truth when he said, “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 ….”

He also spoke of individuals who “have actually been completely unprofessional and stopped development and tried to overrule localities.”

Being a planning board member is a hard job; many people, on all sides of an issue, are unhappy with decisions. Sofia and Riguso both have businesses that depend on development — Sofia described himself as “pro-growth” — but they shared their expertise to see that development happened wisely.

It is essential that planning boards work independently of politics. If members can be fired for following sound planning principals, the entire purpose of their review is negated.

By law, municipalities have the chance for their own planning boards to overrule the county’s with a supermajority vote. If a locality’s planning board members feel strongly enough about a project — as Guilderland’s did with Pyramid’s plans for Rapp Road — the county’s vote is overruled.

Most revealing, Peter repeated that Sofia and Rigosu had served at the pleasure of the majority leader. 

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

But, really, none of the legislators seemed to know, anymore than did the citizens, why two able board members were to be replaced.

We’re pleased the vote on the resolution was delayed, and, as citizens called for, the personnel committee will review the matter.

We hope the committee will be transparent about its deliberations and inform the public, as citizens requested, “What’s behind all of this?”

As Guilderland resident Karen White said, “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.”

Democratic governments exist to serve the people, and the people want to know why. Let’s have a transparent answer.

More Editorials

  • We hope we have clawed our way into an era, with brave survivors speaking out about the crimes that wrenched them as children, where we adults are more mindful of children’s safety and our duty to protect it.

  • Rather than the somber tone of those long-ago post-defeat meetings, the school board session on May 29 felt more like a pep rally. The audience of parents, students, and school supporters largely commended the board members and applauded their decisions. There was no reckoning. Rather, there was outright denial there had been a budget defeat.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.