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Ogdensburg council close to decision, far from consensus on attorney hire

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OGDENSBURG — The City Council is preparing to hire high-powered attorneys to review a report on problems with the city’s housing program before releasing it to the public, but some members of the council believe it is unnecessary.

“We don’t need an attorney for this. Just release the report,” Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle said. “The public should be up in arms that the report is not out in the open already.”

In letters given to councilors at their Monday meeting, Mayor William D. Nelson informed them that he has received proposals from two firms he would like the City Council to choose between: Menter, Rudin & Trivelpiece of Watertown and Harris Beach of Syracuse.

Mr. Nelson said the council could choose a firm as soon as Monday, when it will meet to work on the 2012 city budget.

“We may call for a special meeting Monday before our budget meeting,” Mr. Nelson said.

The council is seeking outside legal advice on whether to release a report compiled by City Attorney Andrew W. Silver into the rehabilitation and sale of two city-owned properties, 819 Knox St. and 2 Grove St. However, it’s likely unnecessary to hire an attorney to review the document, said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

“This does not seem to be so complex that a second attorney should have to review it to figure out what is public and what is not,” he said.

Mr. Freeman said that the Freedom of Information Law requires that the document be made public, and that city officials could access the text of the law themselves.

The council directed Mr. Silver to create a timeline of events between the time the city took title to the Knox Street property in 2009 and this summer, when it was revealed a family had lived there for three years without paying rent or taxes.

Mr. Nelson and Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley have said that the report needs to be reviewed because it may contain sensitive information. The Freedom of Information Law has an exception that allows public agencies to withhold from the public materials containing information about an individual’s medical and financial records.

“Our city attorney says we need somebody to review the report to make sure it can be released because it has personnel matters in it,” Mr. Morley said.

His claim is disputed by others on the council.

“There is nothing to hide. There is no personnel issue or anything that should be protected in the report,” Councilor Nicholas J. Vaugh said.

The report, centered on Mr. Silver’s timeline, also contains testimony and documents to support its findings. None of them put the city at risk of litigation, Mr. Skamperle said.

“It is simply a series of events and facts surrounding what happened,” he said. “There’s no reason in the world that we should have this delay.”

Mr. Skamperle said Mr. Nelson and Mr. Morley are trying to prevent the report from being made public.

“I think they are going to try to keep this report from seeing the light of day,” he said. “While there have been a lot of allegations made against the city manager, the report proves many of those allegations to be incorrect.”

Mr. Vaugh said he thinks the delay in releasing the report and the hiring of attorneys are both linked to a political effort to remove City Manager Arthur J. Sciorra.

“In these letters it says that ‘we understand that the city may seek to dismiss or discipline one or more city employees,’” he said. “It is clear that the mayor is hiring these guys to remove Art from office, not to release the report.”

Mr. Vaugh said the mayor and deputy mayor were trying to delay the release of the report because it conflicts with statements they have made calling for Mr. Sciorra to resign and with a resolution proposed by Mr. Nelson that would have begun the process of terminating the city manager.

“The mayor has made these allegations and the report disproves them,” Mr. Vaugh said. “He is trying to hide behind attorneys now. I believe they are going to take action to remove an employee before the report is ever public.”

The cost of hiring the attorneys is also an issue.

“We’ve already spent a considerable amount of money on this investigation,” Mr. Vaugh said. “Now they are hiring Harris Beach at $250 an hour just to release a report? It doesn’t add up.”

Mr. Freeman said that using an attorney to vet the report is wasteful.

“The city should not have to pay a second attorney to review this document,” he said. “It should already be public.”

Mr. Skamperle agreed.

“The public paid for this document. They should be allowed to see it before we spend more money on lawyers,” he said.

Mr. Morley defended his position.

“I didn’t see anything in the report to hold up the release, but I am going to follow my attorney’s advice,” he said.

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