So this escalated quickly: Yesterday, I noted that Jack Sterne, the Empire State Development spokesperson assigned to the New York Islanders arena project, had told me that an assessment of the value of New York state land being leased to the developers for $50 million would be forthcoming before the ESD board’s vote — and indeed it was, a whole three and a half hours before. And the released documents only included the executive summaries of the assessments, which contained no details of how the land values had been arrived at, making it impossible to determine why their conclusions ($35.9 million to $41 million) were so much lower than those arrived at by looking at comparable nearby land values ($114 million to $340 million).
I immediately emailed Sterne to ask if he could provide more details. He wrote back:
Hey Neil — yes I believe the summaries are in the board materials.
If you’re looking for additional docs you are always welcome to FOIL — https://esd.ny.gov/freedom-information-law-foil
A FOIL — Freedom of Information Law request, in New York state terms — typically takes at least a couple of months to get a response to, and some state agencies have been known to drag it out for a year or more. So this wasn’t entirely helpful with a vote just two hours and change away at this point, and I noted that here in a comment. (Then the board unanimously voted to approve the plan, though the arena still has a couple more hoops to jump through before it’s finalized.)
Norman Oder, who’s been covering the Belmont arena shenanigans at Gotham Gazette, then picked my comment up in a tweet:
Astounding that Cuomo's @EmpireStateDev released the promised land appraisals (in summary) only hours b4 the vote.
They were ready when Final EIS was released July 8.
For the full appraisals, @fieldofschemes was told to file a FOIL. Which takes many months. #NotGoodGovernment
— Norman Oder (@AYReport) August 8, 2019
Jack Sterne then responded on his personal Twitter account:
This is a strawman argument if there ever was one.
Someone requesting documents is asked to FOIL. The horror! That’s *why* FOIL exists!
— Jack Sterne (@JRSterne) August 9, 2019
I’ll stick with strawman, but appreciate the riposte!
My parry? You, Neil, anyone could have FOILed at any point. No one made anyone wait until the summaries were released.
— Jack Sterne (@JRSterne) August 9, 2019
Sterne almost has a point: Oder, or I, or anyone else, could have filed a FOIL request months ago to get the full appraisals. (According to the dates on the executive summaries, they were submitted to ESD on December 3, 2018 and July 3, 2019.) If, that is, we had known they existed. But when I had asked Sterne previously for the documents, I got answers that in retrospect seem designed to throw researchers off the trail.
On July 8, I asked Sterne via email: “When I spoke to one of your predecessors early last year, they said that ESD would conduct an appraisal of the arena project land before the final presentation to the ESD board. Is that still happening before the final vote at the end of the month?”
Sterne answered several of my other questions in a subsequent email, but ignored this one. On July 22, I tried again: “Is ESD still conducting an appraisal of the value of state land being leased for the project, and if so is there a target date for releasing that appraisal?”
The appraisals will be completed by the time the General Project Plan is approved by the ESD Board.
Now, this isn’t technically lying: The appraisals had already been completed, in one case for months, meaning they would indeed be completed by the time of the ESD board’s approval vote! It is at best, however, deceptive, since an honest answer would have been “No, we’re not still conducting an appraisal, we already have two in hand!”
It’s also pretty exceptional behavior from a press flack, whose job is usually to try to spin or stonewall reporters or sometimes call them up and yell at them when they don’t like what was written. (Sterne has done that, too, but I’m used to that.) All this, combined with the abbreviated last-minute release of the appraisal documents, is certainly enough to fuel suspicions that there’s something in those full appraisals that ESD — or Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls ESD — really doesn’t want anyone to see until all the t’s are crossed in the deal. We’ll find out once they process my FOIL request, I guess — hopefully before the new arena opens for its first game.