June 29, 2011 —
MONTICELLO, NY — Sullivan County Legislators Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman have called for a changes to the rules of the legislature in the wake of accusations that the two had improperly received seats for performances at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. The legislators have said in the past that they have been seated in the box seat of orchid dealer and philanthropist Stuart Salinger, and said they did not believe they had done anything wrong.
In the past, both have voted twice in favor of admitting parcels owned by Salenger into the county’s Agricultural District Number Four against strong opposition from some of the neighbors; an application for another parcel is now pending before the legislature.
Salenger’s neighbor, Kathryn Barnhardt, and others testified at a public hearing two weeks ago, that Binder and Goodman should recuse themselves from the votes.
But according to a news release from the county manager’s office, Binder asserted that current rules of the legislature do not allow lawmakers to abstain to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, but only to avoid an actual conflict of interest.
Goodman said, "We believe it would be preferable to amend the rules of the legislature to permit a legislator to abstain under circumstances where a legislator has a close relationship with, or has been the beneficiary of hospitality from, a person or firm who has an interest in a matter pending before the legislature."
On the other hand, the current county code of ethics, which is a separate document than the rules, currently says that a legislator can not accept a gift of more than $75 in value “under any circumstances in which it could be reasonably inferred that the gift was intended that the gift was intended to influence him or her or could reasonably be expected to influence him or her in the performance of his or her official duties or was intended as an award for any official action on his or her part.”
A spokesperson for Bethel Woods said the value of Salenger’s box is “private consumer information that Bethel Woods does not give out,” and added, “there are too many variables to determine the cost of the tickets in question.” Information on the organization’s website says “starting at $5,500, boxes feature two, four, six or eight premium seats for you and your guests at every Main Stage performance.”
Binder and Goodman also called for the review of a draft ethics law, which is intended to update the code of ethics law, which was adopted in 1998. The legislators say the draft law does not include “recent ethics reforms that were initiated by Cuomo earlier this month.”
County chairman Jonathan Rouis said he would heed the request and appoint a commission to review the law. He said there must be a policy that “more clearly defines gifts, and the prohibition of gifts only from those individuals, firms, or organizations that have a stated value, and that have a contract with Sullivan County or have an interest in legislation before the county.”
He added, “County officers or employees should not be prohibited from providing or receiving hospitality from individuals, forms, or organizations that have no contracts with Sullivan County, nor any interest in matters where the officer or employee would have any jurisdiction."
Former county legislator Sean Rieber took objection to the two press releases about the matter. He sent out an email that said, “It is an insult to the public that two legislators who got caught with their hands in the cookie jar can attempt to change the rules so they can save face.”