OpEd: Democracy before developers (FL Times)

Last week, a state court ruled that Tyre town officials failed to adequately review Rochester developer Tom Wilmot’s planned casino when they approved his massive development. The ruling was more than just a setback for the proposed casino — it was a statement that our town leaders were so eager to appease Tom Wilmot that they forgot who they work for. They ignored their own constituents and, in the process, violated state law.

For months, town leaders have attacked those of us who tried to raise concerns about the Lago development. Most recently, our own town’s Planning Board chairman, Robert Seem, published an ugly attack against residents who raised concerns, claiming we are “driven by self-interest” (Finger Lakes Times Letter to the Editor, July 6).

The court ruling, though, validates the position of the project’s opponents, who have been asking that the most basic state laws be respected.

It is reassuring to know that the judicial system works. The court ordered town officials to do what the law requires them to do. They must start over from scratch. This is welcome news considering how Tom Wilmot’s development plan unfolded.

From the beginning, town leaders abandoned their duty to protect Tyre. They were co-opted by an out-of-town developer. They rubber-stamped a proposal that was marred by the kind of conflicts and corruption that may be expected in big cities but should not be acceptable when they so deeply affect our small hometown.

The record of corruption is disturbing. Newspapers across the state have reported that the state gaming commission’s “independent” consultant was an out-of-state law firm that had financial ties with the Lago project. And, what’s worse, the developer and the state tried to conceal that important fact from the public. As the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported under the headline “Casino siting ripe with potential conflicts,” Wilmot’s “conflict of interest paperwork was redacted from the application package” when it submitted its Lago casino proposal.

There is more. Lago’s developer hired a law firm to negotiate its key legal issues with the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency; that law firm is the same law firm employed by the Seneca County IDA, meaning the IDA’s own counsel appeared before the IDA to negotiate lucrative incentives to benefit Lago. Here, too, the developer and the IDA tried to conceal that fact from the public: The developer’s application with the Seneca County IDA reportedly did not disclose the conflict of interests involved in Lago employing the same law firm that was working for the IDA.

And the town leaders did not just turn a blind eye to ethics. As the court showed, town leaders similarly did not follow the most basic requirements of state environmental review laws.

Town officials mesmerized by Tom Wilmot’s wealth tried to steamroll this development through and to shut down anyone who asked questions or raised concerns. We will not stand down. We have a patriotic duty to ask questions, especially about such a massive wave of corruption and malfeasance that threaten the control of our town for generations to come.

As a community, we have more than a right to raise questions. We have a civic obligation to stand up to a proposal that would bring poorly planned, profit-at-all-cost development to our community. We have an obligation to exercise our rights over our own community, and not simply cower in the face of an out-of-town real-estate magnate looking at our hometown as just another one of his get-rich-quick schemes, regardless of the impact on our families and children.

At its core, this is a democracy issue, especially when local officials like Mr. Seem bully residents who merely want to ask questions of a developer who plans to change the character of our town. These public officials — like so many in Albany and Washington, D.C. — forget that they aren’t supposed to be working for real-estate moguls outside our community. They are supposed to be working for us.

The state court’s ruling underscores that fact, providing us a much-needed opportunity to reverse course and protect our town. It is a victory for Tyre, and for democracy.

Desiree Dawley and her husband Jim are homeowners in Tyre, their land adjacent to the proposed Tyre casino. They are co-leaders and organizers of the Casino Free Tyre coalition (www.CasinoFreeTyre.com). Jim’s family has farmed in Tyre for 53 years.

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