On September 15th at 5:30pm, KingstonCitizens.org, Kingston Tenants Union, Mid-Hudson Valley Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), TownOfUlsterCitizens.org and the Kingston News hosted a press conference event in advance of that evening’s Ulster County Legislative meeting. It was our goal to raise awareness about a $30.6 million dollar tax incentive for a development project which proposes to build high-end housing and a luxury boutique hotel in exchange for a parking garage in the City of Kingston’s historic Stockade District.
READ: The Ten Things we Know about the Kingstonian PILOT
To start, the Kingston Tenants Union debuted their short film “Say NO to the Kingstonian PILOT: A History of the Project“ in an effort to help the public connect the dots in a four year saga. “This is a case study of steamrolled gentrification and suppression of marginalized voices in the process.” said Village of New Paltz Deputy Mayor KT Tobin after watching the film.
Speaker testimonies followed the film from the Village of New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers, former City of Kingston councilwoman and Legislator Dr. Lynn Eckert, Kingston Tenants Union Juanita Velazquez-Amador, City of Kingston resident Larissa Shaughnessy and local comedian Duval Culpepper, all of whom encouraged the Ulster County Legislature and Board of Education to say NO to the Kingstonian deviated Payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT).
In scheduling the press conference on this date, it was our goal to help coordinate as many members of the public to speak during open public comment to the full 23 member Ulster County Legislative body during their remote meeting that evening.
What happened to public comment during the Ulster County Legislature on Wednesday?
Public comment during an open meeting provides community members the opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights. The vitality of government is measured by the level of public interest and involvement, and community members are empowered when they make their views known.
Prior to COVID-19, the public would arrive at the legislative chambers and sign up to speak on any item, whether it was on the agenda or not. On contentious issues you could predict an overflow of the public spilling out into the hallway in order to have their two minute opportunity to speak to their elected officials in a public setting.
Since COVID-19, the Ulster County Legislature has been meeting remotely. To our surprise on Tuesday evening, with nearly 62 people waiting in a queue to speak on the PILOT for the Kingstonian, the clerk reminded the legislature of their new policy initiated in April which limits public comment to agenda items. The decision to enforce the public speaking rule was made by Chairman David Donaldson (D/District 6, City of Kingston) who is known to be in favor of the Kingstonian PILOT.
Unfortunately, the new public comment policy has not been clearly or consistently communicated to Ulster County residents. Although it is within the Legislature’s purview to set those speaking parameters (unless the public challenges it), we don’t recall the clerk making an announcement of the new policy at the start of past meetings, nor are we able to locate where they amended their presentation slide regarding the call-in number or, describing their procedure on the website legislative calendar where the public could intuitively find information about public meetings.
Even one of the legislators at the meeting spoke out about the Chair’s decision to reinforce the April rule change on the very night when community members had carved out time to speak on a contentious topic before the legislature. “I feel obligated to state on the record that we have many times heard people speak on items not on the agenda…” said Legislator Abe Uchitelle (D/District 5, City of Kingston).
The challenges in following the Kingstonian PILOT process.
Like the number of public parking spaces the Kingstonian project has offered, the rules and governing procedures around the Kingstonian process are constantly changing to accommodate the developers interests. Rarely has any level of government – the city or the county – provided good lead time or clear instructions that would allow the public time for speaking preparation. In fact, several weeks back, we received information that the Ulster County Legislature’s Chairman Donaldson accepted a late communication on the Kingstonian PILOT (that came in after the August 21st deadline). In an effort to enable the legislation contained in the late communication to be considered at the September legislative meeting, long-standing rules would have had to be somehow interpreted or altered for an accommodation to be made. That plan never came to fruition yet it demonstrates the unfair terrain on which those opposed to the Kingstonian PILOT must operate.
During the September legislative meeting, the clerk announced to the public that they anticipate the Kingstonian PILOT resolution to come in front of the legislature in October. Yet the public will only be able to confirm that following the Laws and Rules Committee, which occurs the evening prior to the full legislative meeting. The agenda will only be made available the morning of October 20. If the Kingstonian PILOT resolution is listed as an agenda item, then the big night would be Tuesday, October 20 at 7:00pm. If so, we hope that not only will the public come out in force like they did this month, but the Ulster County Legislature will continue with remote meetings in order to accommodate every single voice. If Chairman Donaldson decides to make October the month that the legislature returns to legislative chambers, the result would limit the number of residents who are able to attend due to current Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings.
WATCH the film and recorded testimonies to learn about the history of the Kingstonian project and listen to a range of opinions from people who courageously spoke during the press conference.
READ “The Ten things that we know about the Kingstonian PILOT” and spend some time asking more questions in order to prepare your testimony for the next public comment session at the Ulster County Legislature.
CLICK HERE TO SEND A LETTER to all of the representatives in the Ulster County Legislature and ask them to assure that their October 20 meeting (or whenever they are scheduled to discuss and to vote on the Kingstonian PILOT), remain remote to accommodate all Ulster County residents during COVID-19’s restrictions on public gatherings and, to vote NO on the Kingstonian PILOT.