Mayor: Tall ships report was edited to protect local businesses

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11/29/2012 10:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER FILE PHOTO | A long line to board one of the ships at this year’s Tall Ships of America event.

Only weeks after a state official said the information must be made public, Greenport Village blacked out large sections of a report detailing donations and expenses connected with the tall ships visit in the spring.

Bob Freeman, director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, who gave a public presentation in Greenport last month about Freedom of Information laws, confirmed last week that the village had wrongfully redacted, meaning removed, sponsors’ names in its response to a recent FOIL request seeking information about who donated to the event this past Memorial Day.

Mayor David Nyce said the documents were redacted because confidentiality agreements had been made after some sponsors expressed concern about having the amount they planned to donate revealed publicly. He declined to name the specific organizations that expressed concern.The issue prompted a heated exchange between the mayor and some of his most persistent critics during the Village Board’s regular meeting Monday night as Mr. Nyce talked about the redacted documents released to a resident earlier this month.

Mr. Nyce said the village always intended to keep a record detailing how it financed the Tall Ships Challenge because no such document was available when it planned the event, which brought in about 60,000 visitors. He said the document could be used as road map for future administrations if they wanted to organize a similar event of that size.

Mr. Nyce said that after some businesses expressed concern about disclosure, he sought legal advice from village attorney Joe Prokop to determine if the village could keep donation information confidential.

“At that point, the answer I was given was yes, that would be acceptable,” Mr. Nyce said. “We were also under the impression that a draft document of confidential nature within the treasurer’s office was acceptable and not open to FOIL.”

But after Mr. Freeman’s presentation, Mr. Nyce said it was “made very clear” that the document was subject to the FOIL rules. Nonetheless, the village still believed it could redact the sponsors’ names to protect the businesses, even though most event sponsors were listed in advertising published after it took place. The mayor had a subsequent conversation with Mr. Freeman about the redactions after he was questioned by The Suffolk Times, which received a copy of the censored report through a FOIL request.

“Mr. Freeman told me that had we redacted the individual amounts, that document might have been acceptable,” Mr. Nyce said. “Somebody that contributed may be damaged by the information. They may not. They may also decide not to contribute next time and that’s what we were trying to avoid.”

Greenport resident John Saladino stood up during the meeting and interrupted the mayor by criticizing his reasoning in withholding the information.

After he was repeatedly asked to explain how businesses would be damaged by the information, the mayor asked Mr. Saladino to leave. He did, along with former trustee Bill Swiskey who said, “Good luck with your clown act, Mr. Mayor.” After the meeting Mr. Nyce said, “The fact that they don’t like my explanation doesn’t make it untrue.”

For several months, Mr. Swiskey has requested details about how the Tall Ships Challenge was financed because he doesn’t believe the village turned a profit of nearly $20,000 from the event, as it has claimed. Mr. Swiskey said the village should have been more forthcoming about how they financed the event because he believes “no one expected them to make money.”

“You do it to promote the village,” Mr. Swiskey said in a telephone interview last week. “I’ve been to all of the tall ships [events] and the village took a beating on every one of them.”

Even though the village had published a summary report last summer showing how the tall ships event was financed, he continued to seek a line-by-line accounting of all expenses and revenues.

Mr. Swiskey submitted a FOIL request on Sept. 28 seeking the full report and said village clerk Sylvia Pirillo emailed him the next day stating that the document didn’t exist. After appealing her decision, Mr. Swiskey said he received a letter from the village attorney on Oct. 11 stating that Ms. Pirillo had “properly” denied his request because “no records exist in the village offices” that were “responsive” to his request.

About a week after Mr. Freeman’s presentation, Mr. Swiskey said, he submitted a new FOIL request specifically seeking “any records held in the treasurer’s office pertaining to donations to the tall ships event.” He received the redacted report on Nov. 7 and sent a copy of it to The Suffolk Times, which then issued its own FOIL request to confirm its validity.

“First they said no documents existed and denied my appeal,” Mr. Swiskey said. “Suddenly they exist in the treasurer’s office and are redacted … This doesn’t seem to fit what Mr. Freeman said that night.”

Mr. Freeman said the mayor had told him he believed the sponsors would not have made such large contributions if the public knew the amounts for fear that others would come to them looking for similar donations.

Based upon a conversation with the mayor last week, Mr. Freeman said he believed there’s “only one exception that might conceivably apply” to withholding the information and described it as a “rare circumstance.”

That one exception, according to Mr. Freeman, allows a municipality to withhold information that would cause “substantial injury to the competitive position of a commercial enterprise.”

“I’m not in a position to guess which companies would fall into that category,” he said, “but that would be the only exception, in my opinion, that might conceivably apply.”

Mr. Freeman said the state’s Court of Appeals has dealt with such claims and found that a company would have to demonstrate how disclosure would cause substantial injury because “speculation is not good enough.”

Since the mayor talked with Mr. Freeman, the village has agreed to release the full document. It includes all of the sponsor names, as well as some administrative, printing and promotion details that were initially redacted.

The complete report shows an expenditure of $2,464.58 next to Mr. Prokop’s name and other expenditures involving Reflective Image, Academy Printing, East End Sport, Peconic Signs, Preston’s, Island Portable, North Fork Sanitation and Platinum Security — all of which had previously been redacted.

The unexpurgated version also shows that event’s top sponsors were Phillip Ross Industries and Hawkeye Energy Greenport, which each donated $10,000. Peconic Landing and Eastern Long Island Hospital donated $8,000 each and Greenport Harbor Brewing Company gave $7,500.

ELIH spokeswoman Eileen Solomon said the funds the hospital donated came from its marketing budget and she believed the Tall Ships Challenge was a promotional success.

“It was a way to market and bring awareness to the hospital,” she said. “No regrets.”

Peconic Landing president Robert Syron said his organization was glad to partner with the hospital in sponsoring the event.

“We thought it was a great way to support the village and thought it was well worth it,” Mr. Syron said. “We were proud to support it and if we are financially able to we’d support it again.”

The report also showed that Don Higgins Realty, Newsday and Bridgehampton National Bank donated $5,000 each. The rest of the sponsors include Hampton Jitney, Dvirka & Bartilucci Engineers, Capital One, Lamb & Barnosky, North Fork Chamber of Commerce, Grady White, Port of Egypt, Genesys Engineering, Eldor, Cameron Engineering and the Greenporter Hotel.

Greenporter Hotel owner Deborah Rivera Pittorino said she decided to become a Tall Ships Challenge sponsor because she believes in supporting the community’s maritime charm.

“At the Greenporter, we’re not just selling the hotel, we’re selling a destination,” she said. “I thought [the event] was a good idea and it turned out to be very successful.”

Ms. Pittorino, along with officials at ELIH and Peconic Landing, told The Suffolk Times they didn’t believe releasing the donation amounts would be detrimental to their businesses. Other top sponsors did not return phone calls seeking comment.

While Mr. Nyce acknowledged the village made a mistake in handling the situation, he believed the only end result of releasing the full report is “possibly some harm to some businesses.”

“It doesn’t change the amount of money that was taken in nor the money that was spent,” Mr. Nyce said. “Those numbers remain the same and we still ended up having a wildly successful event, probably the most successful event that this village has done.”

Scroll down to view the report.

Editor’s note: Times/Review Newsgroup, which publishes The Suffolk Times, gave an in-kind donation of $10,000 for the Tall Ships Challenge. 

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Greenport Village’s Tall Ships Full Report

Greenport Village’s Tall Ships Redacted Report