Tensions ran high in village hall July 13 when a heated debate erupted because of accusations made by members of the Committee to Save St. Paul's that allege trustees are massively deceiving the public with regard to supposed "secret" options for the historic Main Building, namely the "C" plan.
The committee's allegations stem from emails sent back and forth between Trustee John Mauk, chair of the mayor's committee on St. Paul's, and hired consultant Karen Backus prior to the Dec. 15, 2005 public presentation Backus made on St. Paul's. Trustee Mauk said he did send an email to Backus, dated Dec. 5, 2005, but emphatically denied any grand scheme to conceal information from the public.
With Judge William LaMarca's recent dismissal of a lawsuit against the village brought forth by former trustee and resident Peter Negri and fellow residents Ed Keating and Tom Poole came the freedom for the committee to reveal this information members said they obtained through discovery.
Negri, president of the Committee to Save St. Paul's, admitted he wasn't planning to speak at last Thursday's meeting but was compelled to after being taken aback by comments made after resident Rachel Cashwell asked the board to elaborate on the supposed "C" plan. When Mayor Gerard Lundquist stated there was no such plan, Negri disagreed. "Although it hasn't been referred to as the 'C' plan, there certainly is a plan..." he said.
Negri first referred to the Nov. 16, 2005 meeting at which time Karen Backus & Associates presented its initial findings to the full board. "There were two options on saving the building," he said, noting the 'E' shape, which would preserve the building in its current structure, and the 'C' shape, which would preserve the east, west and south façade, the clock tower, those portions of the building that are distinguished and visible and add density and in-fill to the building.
He then pointed to the Dec. 5, 2005 email Trustee Mauk sent to Backus, which read, in part: "...I'm sure we'll want to cost-out the C further at some point, since that's the direction you've indicated we need to go to achieve a financially viable project. Again, however, I think that should probably wait until we talk to the developers ... We don't even want to mention the C option as part of the presentation ... As for the in-fill, in the public presentation, we don't even want to breathe this as the direction for the future. We need you to plant the idea for now that some minimal new construction may be required in order to achieve an economically viable project. Many people are going to have a negative reaction to the idea of any new construction, however, unless and until it can be presented properly, and as something the market has confirmed as necessary. That's where the renderings will come in, but we aren't ready to do that yet."
Negri believes the residents of Garden City, regardless of the board's feelings about what should happen to St. Paul's, deserve the truth. "They don't deserve to be treated like children, not even children but like people who are ignorant, perhaps, or deserving of disrespect and deception. In my opinion, that's how we've been treated," he said.
Trustee Mauk, visibly angered by the accusations, thought it no surprise that, after losing the court case, Committee to Save St. Paul's members were attempting to "spin" the facts. "Mr. Negri's accusations are really much ado about nothing," Trustee Mauk told Garden City Life, assuring a reasonable explanation for all the many charges leveled.
Trustee Mauk explained that early on, in the effort to come up with some reasonable and affordable way for saving St. Paul's, Karen Backus & Associates presented the C concept as one option for achieving that, noting, at the time, that it "might" have been the only option that would work financially. "Because it involves some additional new construction, however, the board committee decided to test the concept with the development community rather than accepting it prematurely," Trustee Mauk continued. "That is made very clear in the messages Mr. Negri has seen that were voluntarily provided during the court case. The board committee's decision to wait for more information proved accurate when most of the developers who subsequently toured St. Paul's indicated they could do a reconstruction within the existing E frame of the building."
Eileen Burns Collins, the executive director of the Committee to Save St. Paul's, who said she wasn't spinning, "just responding," further angered Trustee Mauk.
"...Don't get up and lecture us about how we need to be more responsive to you and we need to listen to what you want to talk about because that's a bunch of crap, quite frankly," Trustee Mauk told Collins. "In the meantime ... if you really sincerely ... think you can do this, then you have the opportunity. Like I said before earlier tonight put up or shut up."
Trustee Mauk continued, "We have an RFP that's going to be going out [this] week and I think the mayor said that if you want to submit a proposal in response to this ... be our guest ... We would certainly like to see what your proposal is ... Rather than continuing your vindictiveness and finger pointing and your attempt to play gotcha, let's try to come up with a solution to save this building. That's what you've told us you're interested in and that's certainly what we're interested in."
Collins said, through tears, that she only wants to save the building and work with everybody. "That is the truth," she said.
Resident George Salem, who has been following the St. Paul's saga closely, said he was "shocked and outraged" by the apparent corrupt behavior by the village officials, especially by Trustee Mauk, and recommended Trustee Mauk resign and that the Backus firm be fired. "It appears that [Trustee Mauk] prepped Ms. Backus regarding her remarks at the Dec. 15 meeting and Ms. Backus fully cooperated with Mr. Mauk. Both of them are equally inculpable in this misbehavior," he said.
Cashwell of Houston Road, who first asked the board to explain the supposed "C" plan, asked trustees not to assume that no one in Garden City wants to spend another dime to save the building. "It's obviously not true when most of us spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year - I probably spend close to $3,000-$5,000 a year providing activities for my children outside of this town," she said. "I am not unique ... A lot of us go to Rockville Centre on a daily, weekly basis for activities that are provided by their recreation center. I urge you to not assume that Garden City families are not willing to pay for something of value. We are paying already. To have it in our own backyard, where it would improve our property values would be an enormous benefit to the families of Garden City."
Trustee Tom Lamberti assured skeptical residents there is no plan A or C, D, E or F. "A plan will emerge, by October, and everyone will see that plan. That's the truth," he said. "Have there been meetings will consultants? Yes. I ask you: Wouldn't you expect that to happen? ... The reality is we have one goal. That goal will be set forth in the RFP. It does a disservice for the community and it disrespects this board to go back and make allegations about what happened in other meetings because those meetings were all preliminary. To talk about what happened six months ago isn't very helpful. What I suggest you do in order to respect all of us is to take a look at the RFP and see the criteria ... We cannot deal with generalities, we cannot deal with rhetoric. We cannot deal with emotion. We have to deal with facts. I have an open mind but you have to persuade me with the facts and you have to respect that."
Mayor Lundquist, in a written statement, said what matters are not the informal comments made in the very early stages of the village's efforts to save St. Paul's but finding a productive use for it at little or no cost to taxpayers. "If the Committee to Save St. Paul's is able to produce a credible alternate proposal, the trustees will, of course, carefully examine it," the mayor said.
Trustee Donald Brudie added, "Wait until the 11th hour after the proposals are in then we can talk to you and explain why. Trust us, everything is on the table here ... We trust the board. We trust the committee. Please trust us. We're working for you and for everyone else in the village."