HUDSON — John J. Privitera, the attorney for A. Colarusso and Son Inc., accused two members of the Hudson Planning Board of bias and conflict of interest over the company’s application to make dock and road improvements at 175 South Front St.
Board members Clark Wieman and Larry Bowne denied the allegation.
Privitera called on Bowne and Wieman to recuse themselves from any further votes on the Colarusso project, citing personal and business relationships and involvement with a group opposed to the project.
Privitera made the allegations in a letter to the Planning Board. All seven board members of the Planning Board denied having conflicts of interest or bias.
The accusations followed an invoice for hours billed by Planning Board attorney Victoria Polidoro to Colarusso’s escrow account, which covers expenses incurred by the city in the review of the project.
More than two hours were billed for time Polidoro spent on conflict issues related to the project, wrote Privitera of Whiteman Osterman and Hanna LLP, in Albany, to Planning Board Chairwoman Betsy Gramkow.
Privitera alleged the bill is inappropriate and illegal.
“Individual employees and board members of the city must seek their own counsel regarding their obligations to comply with the personal ethics demanded of them as public servants,” Privitera wrote.
Polidoro declined to comment on Privitera’s allegation about the bill or how the board will further assess the accusations, saying she does not comment on applications under consideration by the board.
Privitera asked that both board members be recused from the approval process.
“Mr. Wieman’s personal and business relationship with an outspoken and documented opponent of the application creates an impermissible bias toward the project and a conflict of interest,” Privitera wrote.
Wieman’s domestic and business partner, Julie Metz, has been actively opposed to the Colarusso application during public hearings, Privitera wrote, citing July 9, 2019, Aug. 13, 2019 and Sept. 10, 2019, hearings.
According to the New York State Comptroller, a spouse favoring or opposing a particular project is a form of impermissible conflict of interest, according to the state Comptroller’s Office, he wrote.
“In such circumstances, the Comptroller has opined that ‘to avoid even any appearance of impropriety, [the spouse-board member] should refrain from participating in board functions relating to any such matters,” Privitera wrote.
Both Wieman and Metz also have been part of Our Hudson Waterfront, Privitera wrote.
“Our Hudson Waterfront is a grassroots group that believes that the future of the Hudson waterfront belongs to the city’s citizens, and the citizens alone,” according to the group’s website.
Wieman impermissibly prejudged the application from the start, Privitera wrote, citing statements Wieman made during meetings.
Wieman suggested in January 2017 the planning board look at options other than conditional use approval of the Colarusso dock, regardless of Colarusso’s right-to-permit approval, according to Privitera.
In March 2017, Wieman said at a board meeting that Colarusso should pursue the “highest and best use” of the dock and haul road, and in April claimed the road should be abandoned and public roads used instead, Privitera wrote.
“On April 9, 2019, Mr. Wieman proclaimed a right of the Planning Board, without support from counsel, to regulate the Colarusso business,” Privitera wrote.
Wieman also claimed the Colarusso application was incomplete, in contrast to the determination of the majority of the board, Privitera wrote.
Bowne and Weiman defended their positions.
Weiman’s statements, according to Privitera, were made in opposition to the application, but Wieman said his statements were proper questioning.
“I believe my tough questioning and analysis of Colarusso documentation and insistence that they comply with both SEQRA law [State Environmental Quality Review Act] and formal planning board requests and related matters have been consistent from the start,” Wieman said in response to the accusation at the Oct. 13 planning board meeting. “This isn’t bias but simply doing our job as a Planning Board member. In my nearly four years on the board, I have made no statement against Colarusso or advocated for or determined a specific outcome. I have repeatedly worked diligently toward adhering to a fair, open process in accordance with SEQRA law. Had I not done so I would have been remiss in my duties as a Planning Board member. Allegations of essentially guilt by association, which is in the Privitera letter, due to my partner’s former activities with Our Hudson Waterfront are ridiculous and unfounded. My views are my own and I’m committed to a full and open review process. She [Julie Metz] is, of course, entitled to her own opinions.”
Bowne’s history as an outspoken opponent of the application and participation in the proceedings creates a bias that also requires he be recused, Privitera wrote.
When appointed to the board, Bowne said he was involved with Our Hudson Waterfront, Privitera wrote.
Bowne also spoke against the applications before joining the Planning Board, according to Privitera, citing July 9, 2019, and Aug. 13, 2019, comments.
Bowne signed a letter dated Sept. 11, 2019, from Our Hudson Waterfront to the board in opposition to the Colarusso application, according to Privitera’s letter.
Bowne was not a member of the Planning Board at that time.
On Nov. 12, 2019, Bowne asked the board why Colarusso’s permitted use of the dock should not be abandoned so the property could be transformed from a private use to a community asset, Privitera wrote.
“Mr. Bowne’s membership in and leadership of the primary advocacy organization opposing Colarusso, Our Hudson Waterfront, along with his specific remarks in opposition to the application, clearly disqualify him from serving in an unbiased manner, in the public interest, in consideration of any aspect of the Colarusso applications,” he wrote.
Bowne’s 2019 involvement with Our Hudson Waterfront was meant to encourage the Planning Board to follow their proper review, Bowne said in defense of his past involvement.
He attended three or four of the advocacy group’s meetings, signed their petition and volunteered once at the Farmers Market to gather more signatures for the petition, Bowne said. The petition, titled “Save Our Hudson Waterfront — and get big trucks off our streets!” has 841 signatures on Change.org.
“Given the great opportunity our waterfront represents, we strongly oppose noisy, dusty, polluting and hazardous uses there,” according to the petition.
The petition does not explicitly mention Colarusso, but was created in response to the Planning Board considering the construction company’s application, according to the group’s website.
“Additionally, in 2019 I spoke at a pair of public hearings regarding the board’s review of the ACS (A. Colarusso and Son) applications,” Bowne said. “These activities were all intended to encourage the Planning Board to conduct its review of the ACS application fairly, transparently and rigorously. Then, and frankly since, I have encouraged the board to follow proper procedures and protocols.”
Before he joined the board and since he was appointed, he has not advocated for or against any application the board has reviewed, Bowne said.
“Like many engaged citizens in Hudson I have had thoughts and opinions regarding proposed developments along our shoreline,” Bowne said. “I certainly have a desire to see mixed-use, publicly accessible projects but I also hold dear the rights of private property owners to do with their land as they see fit so long as those actions comport with the law.”
“These professional judgments and personal values do not prohibit the reasonable evaluation of any applications currently under review by the board,” Bowne said. “If I thought I were incapable of being open minded and fair I would not have joined this board. I certainly would not have sworn the oath I took on Jan. 9 of this year to faithfully discharge my duties as a member of the planning board.”