Village hires LA Group to cover ‘interim’ period

SARANAC LAKE — The village Board of Trustees agreed Monday to hire an outside consulting firm to help run its community development office on an interim basis.

The decision to bring in the LA Group, which drew objections from a pair of speakers during the meeting’s public comment period, comes after the departure of Jeremy Evans as village community development director and amid an ongoing debate about how to replace him.

After more than nine years with the village, Evans resigned last month to become the new director of the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency. Village officials have said they plan to separate his duties into at least two different jobs. The community development director position’s primary task would be grant writing and grant administration, and working with various advisory groups, while its code enforcement and Development Board liaison roles would go to a new code enforcement officer.

To help run the office until a new community development director is hired, village Manager John Sweeney reached out to the LA Group. According to its contract with the village, which was included in the board’s agenda packet Monday, the company would provide administration and determinations of the village Development Code; grant writing and administrative services; landscape architecture and engineering design services; planning and study of special projects; and ancillary and advisory services. It would mostly work from its Saratoga Springs offices unless village officials require company representatives to be here for specific meetings or office hours.

Under the contract, the LA Group would be paid an hourly rate ranging from $45 to $200 an hour, the actual amount depending on which of its staff are called on to assist the village.

In remarks during Monday’s meeting, however, village resident Sarah Clarkin said the arrangement with the LA Group would weaken the Development Board because the company would only be paid for services authorized by the village board.

“That leaves it up to the village board to determine when and if the Development Board has planning assistance, and I do think that will dilute the abilities of the Development Board to make the decisions in an informed way,” Clarkin said.

Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania said Evans, as community development director, has helped many groups in the community with networking and grant applications. She’s afraid of losing that expertise.

“I don’t see that the LA Group is going to be there for us in that way,” Catania said. “I don’t think the contract is talking about doing that really early work where we can call up Jeremy and say, ‘We have this idea. What do you think?’ We have talented people in this community and in the region who could fill that position.”

When the contract came up for a vote, Trustee Paul Van Cott noted that the board has agreed to post for the community development director position, hire an administrative aide and bring in a second code enforcement officer.

“This contract is really to supplement that work, on a temporary basis,” he said. “I would hope that before we move forward too much forward on the code enforcement position we discuss how best to utilize that position and make sure, for the long-term, the Development Board gets the support it needs.”

Rabideau said it would be difficult to find another person like Evans, who he said had a lot of responsibilities “thrusted” upon him. Separating those roles will help the job get done more effectively, he said.

Rabideau has previously said he doesn’t think the village needs someone with an urban planning background or training to be the new community development director. He said Monday, however, that the village wants someone with planning and zoning experience for the code enforcement position that would work with the Development Board.

“We want them to know our code and implement our code,” he said. “We want that person to be able to give all the information that our Development Board needs and requires to make reasoned decisions.”

Trustee Rich Shapiro said the village lost two people, in Evans and Community Development Assistant Kelly Brunette, but now is looking to staff the office with four people.

“Right now we have nobody in there,” he said. “We may not be hiring a community development person for weeks or months until we find the right person. The LA Group is to hold our hand in that time. Things will still fall through the cracks, but not nearly as much.”

The hiring of the LA Group was approved on a 4-0 vote. In a separate vote, the board agreed to hire Alexandra Amell as a provisional administrative aide.