Monday, September 27, 2010

New York Power Authority mum on wind farm plans

Public officials in Irondequoit and Niagara County have added their voices to the growing call for more information about bids to the New York Power Authority regarding an offshore wind farm.

The Power Authority, an independent arm of state government, is considering five proposals from wind-energy developers to erect turbines in the near-shore waters of Lake Ontario or Lake Erie.

The agency has repeatedly refused to release any information about the proposals — including denying request from a state senator.

Most recently, authority general counsel Terryl Brown denied an appeal of a Democrat and Chronicle request for the proposals under the state Freedom of Information law. Brown said disclosing any information would impair the authority's ability to negotiate with the developers.

If information such as the proposed location of turbines was made public now, Brown said, "interested third parties" might try to "pressure the bidder to withdraw or reconsider" and the developers themselves might try to "manipulate the process."

The Westchester County-based Power Authority intends to keep all information confidential until its staff selects one or more proposals and its trustees vote on them, spokeswoman Connie Cullen said. That is expected to happen in early 2011, she said.

Meanwhile, at two more public meetings last week, officials complained they're being kept in the dark.

Irondequoit Town Supervisor Mary Joyce D'Aurizio complained about Power Authority secrecy at a meeting Tuesday and said her requests for information had been spurned. Town lawmakers questioned the offshore wind-farm concept at the meeting but deferred action on a resolution of opposition until October.

Their counterparts in Greece and Webster have already passed such resolutions, as have lawmakers in four other counties along the Lake Ontario shoreline. A Monroe County Legislature resolution opposing offshore wind drew 12 backers, three short of a majority.

The authority's unwillingness to share information was cited by the author of the Monroe resolution, Rick Antelli, R-Greece, and by Webster Supervisor Ronald Nesbitt.

Authority officials have asked local lawmakers to delay passing judgment on the offshore concept until one or more developers are selected and details of the proposal are made public.

The one county legislature that has endorsed the offshore idea, Niagara, has been reconsidering that endorsement. Lawmakers there met for several hours Tuesday evening, and a Power Authority official made a presentation.

But several lawmakers complained about poor information sharing, and the official declined to answer several questions, including whether any of the proposals call for turbines off the Niagara County shoreline, according to Alan Isselhard, a Wayne County opponent of the authority's offshore concept who attended the meeting.

"They simply don't wish to have people asking questions and try to avoid this as much as possible," said Isselhard, who also addressed Niagara lawmakers Tuesday and said he "made a big deal of their contempt for FOI."

The Democrat and Chronicle filed an FOI request shortly after the authority received the five offshore proposals on June 1. The media group received neither the required acknowledgement of its request nor a denial until after it had filed an appeal a month later. Authority officials said they had sent both responses in a timely manner, but the Democrat and Chronicle had no record of receiving them.

The FOI denial cited the exemption in the law for material whose public disclosure would impair a contract award.

The authority's response to the media group's appeal was received Sept. 10 — about two months past the legal deadline for responding.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government, said he thought the grounds for denying the appeal were "bogus" and said the authority should make public basic information about the proposals such as the names of the firms who submitted them and the locations where they would like to site turbines.

"I don't see how that in any way diminishes the ability of the Power Authority to negotiate a contract that protects the taxpayers," he said.

State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, Niagara County, the chairman of the Senate energy committee, filed his own FOI request for the offshore wind proposals in mid-August. Maziarz and his staff insist they have not received an acknowledgement, which is supposed to be sent within five business days, or a denial letter.

Cullen said both had been sent in a timely fashion to Maziarz's office e-mail account, and said the Power Authority had received an automated reply in each case.

She supplied copies of the automated replies, a type of generic response that many political offices use.

When shown the auto-replies, Maziarz's communications director, Adam Tabelski, said he remained certain that neither FOI response had arrived.

"We check the inbox and the junk folder religiously, and carefully," he said.
"That we would miss one of these messages is unlikely. To miss both would be impossible."

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