Friday, September 4, 2009

Are We Being Set Up?

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This space has often written about Frederick P. Clark Associates, the Westchester-based environmental consultancy retained by the Town of Hempstead to spearhead the Lighthouse Project's environmental review.

First, as somebody who is not waist-deep in Long Island politics every day, I was floored that Frederick P. Clark was a repeat donor to Kate Murray, who has retained the firm for countless projects, and nobody seemed to have an issue with this (To clarify: this is apparently a standard practice in Long Island politics. It doesn't make it right, but I'd be wrong to single out Kate Murray as well).

Second, I have questioned the choice of Frederick P. Clark to conduct this review. I am not alleging their work has been compromised, but there are many capable firms based on Long Island that could have done this work, so it is strange that a Westchester-based firm was selected to do this work. In addition, we all know the condition of the economy. Frederick P. Clark has billed over $500,000 as part of its work on the Lighthouse Project, and there are no other projects currently in the works that could provide that level of billing. Therefore, it is not unfair to ask whether Frederick P. Clark has a motivation to stall the process and, therefore, increase its overall billings.

This appears to have come to a head, as Newsday declared today that Frederick P. Clark has stopped working due to a billing dispute with the Lighthouse.

Burying the Lead

Once again, our favorite reporter has come out with a lazy, one-sided piece that does not get down to the true story. The true bombshell is not that Frederick P. Clark has stopped working due to this billing dispute; it is something that is barely mentioned in the piece and that I have confirmed with sources:

Sources allege that the Lighthouse was never informed that Frederick P. Clark hasn't been working for almost 3 weeks. They found out when we did.

If this is true, this is a bombshell-level revelation, and it has far-reaching consequences as we attempt to move forward in the Lighthouse Process.

Important Questions

As you all know, there will be a vote at Hempstead Town Hall this Tuesday on whether to schedule a re-zoning hearing for Tuesday, September 22. Now, on Friday, we hear that Frederick P. Clark isn't working anymore. This revelation has led me to ponder many important and disturbing questions:

1. Are we sure the billing figure is accurate?

I used to be a management consultant; I know that the entire industry turns on "billable hours" - aka, how many hours you can charge to your client. This usually motivates higher billing, and it's the main reason my old employer operated with a fixed bid and charged a uniform number of hours per week.

The Lighthouse has every right to question the level of billing when you're talking about that kind of money, especially since the Lighthouse and Frederick P. Clark disagree on the exact amount of money owed.

2. How/Why did it come to this?

The Lighthouse claims that they owe Frederick P. Clark $80,000, and Frederick P. Clark claims the figure is closer to $120,000. Aside from all else, you have to ask: if there is a dispute, shouldn't the Lighthouse have paid $80,000 and contested the rest?

In addition, why did Frederick P. Clark make the decision to STOP WORKING? I can't imagine this would endear them to their clients. Billing disputes should be resolved while the work continues, especially when you consider that a) we have an important deadline coming up, and b) the Lighthouse has already paid $500,000 to Frederick P. Clark, so they are clearly not deadbeats.

3. Where was the Town of Hempstead in all of this?

The Town of Hempstead is Lead Agency, overseeing the environmental review process. Why didn't the Town take a more active leadership role in resolving this dispute and moving it forward? The Town has shown a commitment to scheduling the next steps in the Lighthouse process, but then they miss a chance to show real leadership? It doesn't make sense.

4. Is the September 8 vote a farce?

This is the big issue, and the main reason for this post. Follow my line of logic here, please:

We are currently at the step in the SEQR process that involves preparation of the Final Environmental Impact Statement. In this step, the Lighthouse Project and the Town of Hempstead work together to finalize the Environmental Impact Statement, with the legal burden of being both complete and correct. Unlike previous documents, which have been prepared solely by the Lighthouse, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is owned by the Lead Agency (Town of Hempstead).

The re-zoning hearing cannot move forward until the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is approved and adopted by the Lead Agency.

If Frederick P. Clark hasn't done any work since the public comments period closed, the Draft Generic EIS (DGEIS) has not been changed since it was approved for public review.

Therefore, the Town of Hempstead will schedule a vote on Tuesday when the main thing that needs to be done has not been done, and cannot be done.

This also raises a few logical questions: If the Town of Hempstead knew their consultants were refusing to work, why would they schedule this vote? How could we expect them to schedule a re-zoning hearing for September 22, and how could we expect to hold one, if the FEIS is not finished?

The voters need to know what to expect on Tuesday, because right now it doesn't look very good. It is despicable - absolutely despicable - that things progressed for so long without any word that the process would be able to move forward by September 8. I have made every effort to get in touch with the town, but so far my calls and emails have not been returned. Regardless of the reason for this, it's another symptom of the political gamesmanship that has plagued this project. I've had enough.

Once again, the media has been absent.

Once again, nobody had the courage to ask the right question.

Once again, we have a failure of leadership. This is getting ridiculous.

Bottom Line

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I don't know about you, but I do not appreciate feeling like I am being played for a sucker. The September 8 vote on scheduling the re-zoning hearing is just on the other side of this long weekend, and if the environmental consultancy is not working there is little to no chance of a Final Environmental Impact Statement being ready in time for a September 22 hearing.

The Town of Hempstead, as Lead Agency, needs to lead on this and take steps to resolve the dispute. I genuinely do not believe - anymore - that the Town is engaging in some kind of systematic campaign to destroy the Lighthouse. However, if they are negotiating in good faith, they should act in good faith.

The Lighthouse and Frederick P. Clark need to resolve this and move forward for the sake of Long Island as quickly as possible. If there can't be an agreement, or if the sides continue in stalemate, then the contract with Frederick P. Clark should be reviewed.

Stay tuned on this one; should be some high drama at Town Hall on Tuesday. In the meantime, the next step in the Lighthouse process hangs in the balance.

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  1. Nick,

    Well done as usual. Two comments:

    1. You should send this piece in to Newsday as a guest op-ed writer. If they refuse to print it (and you may have to remove the jibe about the lovely Eden), then send it in to LI Business News or to the Times for their LI section on Sunday. I'm not sure what the readership of your blog is, but your point of view should be made available to the general public.

    2. I'm a partner in a large law firm. We too bill our clients on an hourly basis. If there were ever a dispute over an invoice, we would (a) let our client know and (b) we certainly would not just stop working on the specific litigation or deal at issue without telling anyone. If we ever did that, and G-d forbid, missed an important deadline, well, that would be malpractice. It's different here, I guess, because I don't believe there's such a thing as environmental consultant malpractice and it's not the best situation when the LHP is effectively paying for the work of its adversary's consultant (they shouldn't be adversaries, but I digress).

    Regardless, you are correct. I don't see how the Board approves the 9/22 hearing date under the circumstances.

  2. Well at least Mr. Wang won't have any schedule conflicts now. He can travel easy to Kansas City on the 22nd.

    Which is very convenient for him.

    Just my opinion, from two time zones away.

  3. mrlbem - thank you for the input. By all accounts, F.P. Clark kept the Lighthouse in the loop about the billing issue, but did not share that they stopped working. Just a point of clarification.

  4. Where is Wang in all of this?

    Or did he throw in the towel, as projected two time zones away 4 months ago?

    And that just my opinion...

  5. Alas, Nick, I believe we indeed ARE being set up. All we have to do is think back to Murrays' mailer to see that they have been full of it all along.

    I agree that you should try and contact Newsday to get this piece run, or maybe LIB. This NEEDS to be exposed further. The TOH, Clark, and yes, our "friend" Eden Laiken all need to be dragged out into the light so everyone can see them for the shams that they all are. We'll be sitting there at the home opener on the 3rd with NO certainty of ANYthing. And all because the people who ARE setting us up are playing a MUCH dirtier game than we are.

    -Big Van Vader

  6. Sorry, Nick you left at the big question. Where were Picker and the rest while this was happening? No one asked, will you continue to work while we resove the billing question. For three weeks no one from the LH checked on how things were going?

    Wang knows what he's up against with the TOH. They don't need excuses to delay or stop this project. Giving them ammo is a firable offense. But as with Milbury Wang's choices never pay the ultimate price.

    Picker says "If I knew they stopped working, I would have paid the 80K." Well, why didn't he know? It's his job to know. Neither the consultants nor the TOH had to tell Picker/Wang anything. In fact, based on past history of the TOH, there was plenty of reason to suspect they wouldn't.

    Games are being played and it's not good. But in this instance Picker and the LH are the bunch most responsible for lwtting this happen.

    Your position on a Westchester Company being chosen over a LI company during this recession. We have not made the most of it and it MUST be brought up consistently by many during the zoning meeting.

    Lastly, there are still 3 weeks for the consultants to do their job and make the 9-22-09 meeting even if Wang now has to pay big bucks in OT costs.

    This is not a good sign at all, but we can't do all the work. Guys like Picker have to uphold their end.

  7. This is just messed up.
    NOTHING can go smoothly with these people, can it????