The following letter was published in this week’s issue of the Gazette.
To the editor:
In light of some misunderstanding about my letter last week, I would like to clarify: the Croton Board of Trustees is certainly within its legal authority to dispose of the Hollis Lane property, and in doing so it does not have to accept the highest price. It also has broad discretion in the manner of sale.
However the State Comptroller has taken the position: “Although there is no public hearing requirement in Village Law… we note that the village board is subject to the Open Meetings Law…and, therefore, board actions in connection with the sale of real property are subject to the requirements of that law” (for the full document, Google “OSC opinion 90-37”).
If the Board of Trustees takes action in a meeting which is closed to the public in violation of state law, this can subject the taxpayers of Croton to liability, and also potentially the individual trustees in their personal capacities unless they dissented from the decision to enter into “Executive Session.”
If you stand in the middle of Grand Street with a megaphone and shout that you are contemplating putting your house on the market, the publicity does not “substantially affect the value” of your house. Nor would it “substantially affect the value” of a lot on Hollis Lane if the Croton Board of Trustees openly discussed selling that lot.
Unless a board’s discussion will “substantially affect the value” of the property under discussion, it is against the NY Open Meetings Law to have an “Executive Session.” For many years, it has been common in Croton to go into “Executive Session” when the Board of Trustees doesn’t want the public to know what is going on. But in the case of Hollis Lane, this could open the door to a legal challenge.
Once the Board of Trustees decided to put the property for sale on BidNet, it was in theory public information. In reality, the only people who would know of the sale are government vendors registered on BidNet and those select few who are plugged-in to the inner circle of Croton government.
I don’t get private briefings from Croton trustees at local coffeehouses. I don’t sit on any of the citizen committees whose members are occasionally granted the honor of a private audience with the Deputy Mayor. I am glad that the Hollis Lane information leaked out and was put up on social media, but is this any way to run a government?
I understand that the Croton Board of Trustees believes “fiduciary duty” to be an offensive concept, but even so they have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers. The decisions regarding Hollis Lane were not an accident, nor a random act. This was a deliberate planned course of action selected by the Croton Board of Trustees and executed by the Village Manager.
Normally the secretive nature of Croton’s Board of Trustees is just an inconvenience and anti-democratic, but in the instance of disposition of real property the backroom dealing has monetary consequences.
Raw land tends to be more difficult to sell than a regular house. There is a limited pool of buyers, and a prospect needs to have a vision and perform due diligence to ascertain that construction after purchase can be realized in a manner which is economically feasible.
It is rare for a vacant parcel to be sold in 25 days. By way of comparison, according to Coldwell Banker in 2018 the average house in Croton stayed on the market for 73 days; 51 percent were on the market for more than 45 days. And this is in the hottest Croton market in 10 years.
Hoping to sell your house in 25 days is optimistic even in this market. Mandating the disposition of a vacant plot of land in 25 days is a fire-sale. Only letting BidNet-registered government vendors and those who are informed by Croton insiders know that the Hollis Lane plot is for sale may be in keeping with Croton tradition, but it is not in keeping with the legal and moral obligation of the Board of Trustees.
On several occasions, the NYS Comptroller has said that at least one appraisal is recommended, if not two. Even at that, Croton’s Board of Trustees has a responsibility to carefully evaluate the terms of the sale. In a 2011 sale of school property, the NYS Dept of Education set aside the sale because the second appraisal was obtained after the RFP had closed, and because the RFP only allowed a 30-day bid window (to read the decision, Google “NYSED 16,239”).
In the case of Hollis Lane, there is no indication the Croton Board of Trustees has bothered to get a single appraisal, and Croton only allowed a 25 day RFP bid window. Perhaps in those secret sessions, the trustees discussed appraisals. Perhaps they discussed the reason for the urgency of the sale. Perhaps they reviewed the options for marketing the property.
Perhaps there is a reason why the rest of us are left to wonder what was discussed in secret.
I am not disputing the authority of the Board of Trustees to sell the Hollis Lane property, and I am not opposing the sale of the property. But as the NYS Comptroller noted (Opinion 96-11): “The method of sale chosen is within the board's discretion, but should be the one which the board believes will yield the best price or maximum financial benefits. To fulfill this fiduciary duty, the board should take appropriate measures, which may include obtaining one or more appraisals and utilizing a real estate broker to identify potential buyers.”
Operating in secrecy and putting village land up for sale in a manner which minimizes the number of potential bidders and minimizes the sale price hardly seems to rise to a basic level of competence. We have the right as citizens to expect at least that much.