L to E: The new Train Station RFP process should be a model of transparency

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
by Robin Murphy

Last month, the Town of New Castle released a new Request for Proposal (“RFP”) for the publicly-owned Chappaqua Train Station and the deadline for submissions was last week.  This is the current Town Board’s second attempt to find a tenant for the Train Station and by issuing the RFP in advance of all public presentation, this time they have allowed a more appropriate window (weeks, instead of days) for the submission of proposals, certainly making the current process an improvement over the prior one.  However, there is yet a lot to happen and I am concerned that the Town Board plans to keep the decision-making mostly confidential instead of being transparent and assuring that residents can be confident of the integrity of the process.

As the events in the spring showed, our community is very interested in the future of the train station as well as the manner in which our town government works.  Although not everyone agrees on the best use for the space—some want food service, some believe a non-food service better fits the site, and others want the building to be left as-is—what seemed to unite the larger-than-expected number of residents who signed the petition that led to a do-over of the RFP process is the importance of knowing that our elected officials are acting in the Town’s best interests.

With the prior RFP, the written proposals were kept confidential until after the Town Board made their selection and the lease was signed.  This time, while the identity of those the Board selects to make presentations will be known, the Town has not said it will identify those not selected nor will it disclose all written submissions. 

Make all the RFPs public

Last week I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) seeking all current train station RFP submissions.  While residents Peter and Erin Chase have already posted their proposal online—on a Facebook page, “Our Station, Our Town,” with a link to their proposal—I suggest that the Town take the initiative and show its commitment to transparency by immediately posting all proposals on the Town website.

In addition to these proposals, I’m hopeful that going forward the Town Board will hold relevant discussions on the Train Station space in public meetings rather than confidential executive sessions. Shared information will help ensure that the decision is fair and protects the common good. 

For example, while the Board has decided that food service is still the goal for the station, the discussions leading to that decision were not part of any public meeting and, as a result, we do not know whether other types of use were considered, why food service is viewed as the best use of that space for the community, and whether the final decision for food service was unanimous or just a majority. 

Transparency would also allow residents to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions.  For example, when the train station lease was rescinded, it happened suddenly, with no public discussion.  Instead, a prepared resolution was read around midnight at the June 24th Board meeting.  Residents never learned exactly why the lease was rescinded other than a vague statement that it was not in the best interests of the community to spend money on a referendum.  And although that may have been what motivated the rescission, we don’t know—we can’t know—because residents were never allowed to hear the discussions.  There was also a concern that the Town Board seemed not to have been familiar with the Westchester County Health Code before selecting a food service tenant. 

Had discussions been in public meetings, we would have an idea what went on and also might be able to determine whether taxpayer money was well spent.  After all, the train station lease ended up costing taxpayers over $19,000 in legal fees alone.  Although the Town Supervisor warned that the legal fees related to the permissive referendum would be expensive, it’s worth noting that those efforts didn’t start until Saturday, May 31st and most of the legal costs (around $17,000) were in April and May when lease negotiations were underway.

The State’s Open Meetings Law

While the public deserves to have our town government to do the right thing, our State government supports it as well.  For example, the New York State’s Open Meeting Law (“OML”) requires that meetings of public bodies be open to the public unless there is a basis for entry into an executive session (i.e., “that portion of a meeting not open to the general public”).

One of the categories that may be discussed in executive session is “the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property…, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.” In other words, the Open Meetings Law requires discussions about the lease of the train station to be held at public meetings unless “publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.”  That is apparently the Town’s main justification for confidentiality in terms of meetings about the train station RFP and lease. 

I am not a lawyer, but the NY Committee on Open Government has made clear that this exception to the public meeting requirement is not automatic just because a town is considering a possible lease of public property.  It must be decided on the facts of the specific situation.  The connection between publicity and the value of the lease must be clearly established.  While all those discussions have been in executive session, it is extremely hard to see how having public discussions on the RFP itself would have any impact, let alone a “substantial” one, on the value of the train station lease. 

It is also a stretch to see how disclosing the written submissions, including the financial terms, would “substantially affect” the value of the lease.  The RFP lays out a very flexible review process that covers a wide variety of factors and in bold-faced type says the Town has no obligation to accept the highest rent. 

Considering that the Chases have disclosed the rent they are proposing in their new RFP, the rent cow seems to be out of the barn and, in any case, I, for one, cannot see why anyone wouldn’t favor full disclosure as a way of fostering competition and getting the best result for the community.  In the FOIL letter I sent last week, I quoted from an advisory opinion by the Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government, who noted in another case that:

…in the RFP process, the figures offered by submitters are subject to negotiation and change; they do not reflect the “bottom line.” In view of the flexibility of the process, it is difficult to envision how disclosure of those figures would adversely affect an agency’s ability to engage in the best contractual arrangement on behalf of the taxpayers…  If anything, disclosure might encourage submitters to better accommodate the needs of the agency or propose what might be characterized as a better deal.  Rather than impairing the process, disclosure might enhance it.

As for the discussions involving the selection of a tenant for lease negotiations, those too should be public.  Every step of the decision-making process on this important community asset is a matter of public concern—as has been made extremely clear.  The community wants and deserves transparency and the law requires it.

We encourage civil, civic discourse. All comments are reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.

Transparency makes for a nice buzzword when you’re running for office, but it gets forgotten (along with a lot of other things) once the real work begins.  You got taken by the Team New Castle hucksters.

By fool me once on 10/28/2014 at 12:55 pm

Robin, amen.  Transparency is vital, especially on issues like the train station proposals, Chappaqua Crossing and the $6 million construction project for Downtown in 2015.  If this TB wants to keep (regain?) credibility, we have to be privy to their decision-making process. 

By Dawn Greenberg on 10/28/2014 at 2:13 pm

Thank you Robin,

I agree with all you write and particularly the over abundance of executive sessions.
I really question the reasons behind these secret meetings.  All too often the first the public hears about decisions is after they are made.

By resident on 10/28/2014 at 2:20 pm

No comments.  Or no comments that the editor agrees with?

By ? on 10/28/2014 at 3:13 pm

No brainer.  If not all, at least most.

By Do the right thing on 10/28/2014 at 3:36 pm

There was a reason the open meetings law was written. It is so those in office don’t do things shady behind closed doors. Seems like our town board does a lot behind closed doors that should be public. How can we hold each individual accountable if we have no idea what they are voting on? Isn’t there a requirement that notes are taken during executive session and those notes, in general terms are released to the public. Where are the notes of what is discussed. Enough with the catch all phrase advice of counsel. I think you are supposed to be more specific. Maybe we need better town lawyers who actually know these things and advise in the best interest of the Town and not just to cover the Boards ass.

By Open meetings? on 10/28/2014 at 6:37 pm

I looked at the Chases’ proposal and it’s fantastic.  It would be a great thing for this town.  Let’s hope Greenstein and others can let bygones be bygones and do the right thing by considering Chappaqua Station for the Chappaqua station.

By For Chappaqua! on 10/28/2014 at 9:35 pm

Team New Castle will prove once again that it is only interested in saving face rather than what is good for Chappaqua residents. They got caught trying to pull a fast one with the last RFP.
I see the Chase’s have posted their plan/ vision and it looks spectacular, as well as getting rave reviews by residents. It is on Chappaqua Moms and as the kids say, “it’s blowin’ up”
Lets see if Team Mt. Kisco, I mean Team New Castle learns their lesson and learns from the mistakes they made and use this “do over” to make things right and regain the trust of the residents.

By Move on on 10/29/2014 at 6:59 am

@Open Meetings: This took me less than 2 minutes to Google.  Should have done the same before you posted.

There is no requirement to take minutes in an executive session.  They are private for a reason.  The only time minutes are required in one of those sessions is when the Town Board takes some sort of formal action. it is section 106 of the Open Meetings Law.

§106. Minutes.
1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.

2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.

3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meeting except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session.

By Robert F on 10/29/2014 at 1:32 pm

A valid argument!  Thank you for saying it so well.

By Res on 10/29/2014 at 1:36 pm

There should be no argument from the board on this.  Secrecy like the last time will only result in questions about the process. More money spent too, pointlessly perhaps, like all that went into a lease that could not be put into effect without code issues.

By Obvious ollie on 10/29/2014 at 7:10 pm

Credit to the Chases for their resilience and for submitting such a wonderful and creative proposal. Chappaqua Station, if selected, will surely prove to be a source of community pride. I only hope that all board members can and will be objective in their assessment and selection … and a little process transparency would be nice too.

By wouldn”t it be nice … on 10/29/2014 at 8:15 pm

The Chase’s RFP proposal looks suspiciously like Love @10514. It seems the only recipient of an unfair process was Leslie Lampert.

By Ashamed Resident on 10/30/2014 at 1:26 pm

Executive sessions are supposed to release minutes for meetings where qualifying executive session matters are discussed and a consensus is arrived at. A formal vote is not the only trigger.  Limiting to a formal vote and not a consensus would allow for easy avoidance of the requirement.  With our current board, from time to time, they are either taking formal votes or arriving at a consensus during executive sessions. A lot of that went on with the prior station RFP. As the article points out, discussions as to the lease of public property are only executive session qualifying in very limited circumstances. Maybe things are changing for the better. The board has now posted the Chases proposal at the Town website. It seems to be the only one submitted. I am glad the board took the initiative.

By Anonymous on 10/30/2014 at 3:00 pm

The Chases copied Love @ 10514?!?!?! How about the other way around! The Chases and Via Yanti came in with small plate and wine bar proposals. Love was grab and go with no served wine.  THAT was Love’s proposal until after it was selected. A few weeks later it was suddenly was going to be a wine bar and small plate place too. Just like the Chases and Via. Please, no boo hooing for Love and its owner.

By To Ashamed on 10/30/2014 at 7:25 pm

Glad to see the Chases proposal takes into account the station becoming health code compliant, and has them putting up the money, which Love @ 10514 did not do.

By Code compliant on 10/30/2014 at 11:13 pm

That is a tough place to make a business work but with a few more intrepid people like the chases opening shop maybe the downtown will get some mojo It will be a process that takes time however.This is a step in the right direction.

By Resident on 10/31/2014 at 9:40 am

There is one proposal and it has been posted?  That is transparency!  Not much competition, but transparency yes.  I am surprised anyone wanted to bid after the controversy created by local partisans after the first one.  Good job all.

By Jessica on 10/31/2014 at 9:51 am

Remember folks, the inside of the station is not historic. It is not even that old. It was renovated not long ago. Updating to expand use is just fine.

By Go For It on 10/31/2014 at 12:23 pm

Post a comment:

Display Name*:

Your Display Name will be associated with this comment on NewCastleNOW.org. We encourage commentators to use their real name or initials.

We encourage civil, civic discourse. In other words, be pithy and polite. All comments will be reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.