County may be sued over government center renovation

Attorney Michael Sussman: Plan abuses public funds and the public interest

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  • A rendering of the Clark Patterson Lee plan, which shows the replacement stone deplored by Rudolph purists (front corner), and the original Rudolph stone in the background (Illustration:

Democrats: Clark must go

GOSHEN — A group of Democratic legislators are calling for the dismissal of the architectural firm contracted to renovate the Orange County Government Center.
It started with some calls this week to Bob Miklos, lead architect at DesignLabs, which renovated Paul Rudolph's Carney Library and was on board to work on the Orange County project along with Clark Patterson Lee. But DesignLabs dropped out for mysterious reasons. Phil Clark told legislators recently that it was because they ran out of money while the project hit some delays.
But Legislator Matt Turnbull (D-Hamptonburgh) said he spoke this week to Miklos, who told him they left when the county decided to avoid the state's review of historic buildings, even though the government centrer is eligible for historic designation and already included on the World Monuments Endangered List. Miklos felt it would just cause problems down the road, Turnbull said.
Some legislators are now very unhappy about the project. They had authorized a renovation, they say, not the demolition and reconstruction now on tap.
County Executive Steve Neuhaus and legislative chair Steve Brescia, Republicans who support the Clark plan, said the legislature shouldn't micromanage the project, and argue about "where the urinals should go." But legislators insisted they had been left out of big decisions almost entirely. They say they never authorized the removal of the iconic Rudolph corduroy block. They say they never authorized a 200,000 square foot building. They say they never authorized a fourth floor
Then when demolition bids came in this week at over $7 million, way over Clark's estimated $3.4 million, a number of legislators previously on the fence about Clark said "Enough!" They disagree with Clark that the new siding would bear heavier loads than the Rudolph stone to be knocked down. The opposite is true, they say.
Myrna Kemnitz (D-Monroe) called the replacement siding inferior, and described Clark's rendering of the Rudolph building stripped down to posts and beams "Clark's Stonehenge."
"That's it!" cried Turnbull. "Clark has to go."
Those who want to forge ahead with the current plan, including Goshen town and village officials, fear that reversing course will only drag out a much-delayed project even longer. Goshen has been without a government center since August 2011.
The legislature is expected to vote on the Clark plan on Thursday, as this paper goes to press. But it would take a long-shot supermajority vote to override Neuhaus' veto.

By Edie Johnson

— Goshen attorney Michael Sussman has threatened to sue Orange County if it persists in its plan to spend $64 to $74 million to renovate the government center while other infrastructure projects essential to the welfare of county residents go begging.

He said at a press conference this week that several people have stepped up to join the suit if the county continues its present, flawed course. He presented some issues that could form the substance a suit:

Destruction of an historic building

The current renovation includes removing significant aspects of a building designed by an important American architect, Paul Rudolph, in violation of the New York Preservation Act of 1980. "Demolition and denuding of a building such as this is precisely what the State Historic Preservation Office is intended to prevent," Sussman said.

Conflict of interestLegislator Leigh Benton, who as chair of the Physical Services Committee made decisions about the building, was offered a job at Clark Patterson Lee, the architectural firm picked to do the renovation. Benton left CPL after a few weeks, when ethics questions were raised, and paid a $1,000 fine. Yet, he has remained active in the decision-making process. "When you have the leader of the Physical Services Committee championing the company he is going to work for, added to the many campaign contributions of area contractors, including Clark, it raises the question: Was this veto bought and paid for?" asked Sussman.

Abuse of fundsOrange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, in blocking sale of the center for $5 million to New York City architect Gene Kaufman, "ratifies the illegal use of public funds," Sussman said.

The proposed renovation abuses public funds because state law prevents "collusion against the public interest," he said. Early estimates compared the Orange County Government Center renovation to Rudolph's Carney Library at the University of Massachusetts, which cost about $50 million to renovate. Legislators approved renovation plans based largely on the Carney project, and the expectation that its architect, Bob Miklos, and the DesignLabs team, would be prime contributors. They left abruptly last fall, citing vague ethical and professional reasons.

Meanwhile, Clark's most recent estimate of $64 million may jump another $4 million because demolition bids are coming in 100 percent above estimate.

"State law makes it clear that there is a limit on wasting funds, especially when there is a smell such as there is with the Benton ethics probe," Sussman said.

Neglect of infrastructureAs the county is preparing to overspend on the government center, other infrastructure projects have gotten no resources at all, said Sussman.

Consider, for instance, the Wallkill River, which has flooded at least seven times in the past decade, devastating local farms and wiping out whole crops.

"This is not a liberal or conservative issue," Sussman said. "Nor is it a Democratic or Republican issue. The lawsuit would be filed to gain space for important municipal purposes."

He said it would be a struggle.

"I know it looks bad," he said. "It has looked bad before, and we have gone to court, and we have won."

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