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Ogdensburg council unhappy over release of Knox Street investigation

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OGDENSBURG — The revelation that city Attorney Andrew W. Silver’s report into the handling of two city-owned properties was leaked to the media has sown seeds of distrust among members of Ogdensburg’s council.

“I have no trust in some of the men I’m working with,” said Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley. “This council is at a standstill as far as what is going to happen.”

The report was the culmination of an investigation into the sale of properties at 819 Knox St. and 2 Grove St. The City Council initiated the investigation in August after it was revealed that a family lived in one of the houses for three years without paying rent or taxes to the city.

Though many on the council have called for the resignation of City Manager Arthur J. Sciorra as a result of the fiasco, the report does not directly cast blame for the lapsed oversight on Mr. Sciorra, some members of the council have said.

“This report doesn’t implicate (Mr. Sciorra),” said Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle, who said he did not leak the report to the press. “I have no idea who leaked the report.”

The Times received the first 14 pages of the report, consisting of Mr. Silver’s summary, Monday evening.

“When our investigation is compromised either through political ideology or sheer ignorance, it is unacceptable, whether it be an employee of Ogdensburg or a member of the council,” said Councilor Michael B. Powers, who also denied leaking the report.

Councilor R. Storm Cilley also denied being the leak.

“I am not sure who leaked the report,” he said. “However, the truth usually surfaces sooner or later.”

Contained in the summary are references to a series of emails from January 2010, in which Mr. Sciorra repeatedly asks for City Comptroller Philip A. Cosmo, then-city planner J. Justin Woods and former interim city attorney A. Michael Gebo to either obtain a lease for the property or evict the tenants living there.

Also in the summary are references to an Oct. 21 affidavit signed by Mr. Gebo describing instructions from Mr. Woods not to proceed with eviction and not to seek a lease.

Some on the City Council say that these two pieces of evidence do not exonerate Mr. Sciorra from culpability.

”Per the charter, only one person is allowed to make lease agreements,” said Mr. Morley. “Only one person can, and that is Art. You can’t just give that job to somebody because no one else is allowed to do it.”

Mr. Morley said that Mr. Gebo’s affidavit is unconvincing because Mr. Woods did not have the authority to prevent him from evicting the tenants or obtaining a lease.

“If (Mr. Gebo) was given an email by Art talking about a lease and (Mr. Sciorra) indicated that he did tell Gebo to get a lease, I would think that the city manager trumps the city planner,” said Mr. Morley. “It doesn’t add up.”

Others say that it is clear Mr. Sciorra cannot be held responsible for the problems with Ogdensburg’s housing program.

“The report alludes to the fact that (Mr. Sciorra) was at least doing his job, though he could have done it better,” said Mr. Skamperle. “It looks to me that Phil and Art were both doing their job, but somebody was directly trying to deceive them. That was (Mr. Woods).”

Councilor Nicholas J. Vaugh said that the emails and the affidavit from Mr. Gebo provide undeniable evidence that Mr. Sciorra did no wrong, and that Mr. Cosmo’s behavior warrants further scrutiny.

“(Mr. Sciorra) directs Mr. Cosmo to seek Mr. Gebo to begin the eviction process,” he said. “The city manager tried to follow policy. We need to ask (Mr. Cosmo) why he failed to do that.”

Mr. Vaugh, who also denied leaking the report, also stated that the affidavit from Mr. Gebo puts the blame squarely on Mr. Woods.

“Mr. Woods on several occasions told him to stop the eviction process and to stop trying to collect rent,” said Mr. Vaugh. “You can’t get much clearer than that.”

The report does find that city policy was violated when the sale of both properties was arranged.

The policy requires that each city-owned Neighborhood Stabilization property be entered into a lottery system to determine who gets the first opportunity to purchase it. In each case, the houses were offered directly to a buyer instead of entering the lottery.

Despite a failure so far to release the report to the public, the majority of councilors said it should be made public.

“I read nothing in the report that I felt could not be made public,” said Mr. Cilley. “Much of it is already out there. Contrary to what many in the public believe, the City Council as a whole is not trying to hide anything from the citizens, or to do anything that is not aboveboard and out in the public.”

“The public paid for the report. They paid for the investigation. They deserve to know the facts,” Mr. Vaugh said.

“I want it made public today,” Mr. Morley said.

He also claimed that his argument for terminating the city manager did not rely on the contents of the report.

“I don’t even need to use this report,” he said. “I am not done with this yet. I am going to carry it through to the outcome I think is fit. My opinion is that we should have a new city manager, and I am going to work towards that outcome.”

Mayor William D. Nelson did not answer calls for comment.

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