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Gag order hinders Lewis County manager selection


LOWVILLE — Lewis County legislators may have a more difficult task in pursuing information about their top candidate for new county manager.

Following a more than hour-long executive session July 2, lawmakers voted 6-4 to table the proposed appointment of Brian J. Wohnsiedler, Harrisville, former executive director of the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District, until a special meeting at 9 a.m. Monday. Legislators Jack T. Bush, R-Brantingham; Charles R. Fanning, R-Copenhagen; Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrisville; and Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden, opposed the two-week delay.

The delay was, according to Board of Legislators Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, to “let us check out references.” Legislator John O. Boyd, D-New Bremen, said board members could then “interview all those people from Jefferson County.”

A July 3 memo by Jefferson County Attorney David J. Paulsen may make that difficult. To the directors and employees of the district, Mr. Paulsen wrote, “The recent announcement of Brian Wohnsiedler for a governmental position in Lewis County has caused inquiries to be made to Directors and other staff of the Soil and Water Conservation District regarding both formal and informal employee references.”

Mr. Paulsen directs employees to “be aware that your knowledge and information regarding the departure of Mr. Wohnsiedler should be considered confidential and disclosure of the details of his departure should be limited to the date of his separation from the organization and the fact that it was by voluntary separation. Disclosure of any other information may result in litigation against the District.”

Mr. Tabolt said he had learned of Mr. Paulsen’s memo. Asked how the legislators would check references if no one would speak to them, he said “It’s in the hands of our attorney.” Lewis County Attorney Richard J. Graham said the matter is a personnel issue and he would not comment.

In February, it was discovered Mr. Wohnsiedler had been borrowing money against future state grants to continue to pay operating costs. Though no criminal action was found, the former director stepped down Feb. 4 after the board said it had lost confidence in him.

Mr. Wohnsiedler, at the time, maintained he had done nothing wrong and that “using available resources has always been a practice” at the district.

Since his resignation, an audit revealed Mr. Wohnsiedler was mingling grant funds and borrowing against future revenue sources to stretch a budget that was running at a deficit.

To start receiving money again, the district had to repay $175,000 to the state. By selling assets, consolidating positions and laying off two employees, the district managed to reduce that debt to $85,000. That shortfall was authorized to be paid by the Jefferson County legislators earlier this month.

In Lewis County Mr. Wohnsiedler would receive a $70,000 salary, about $14,000 lower than that of former County Manager David H. Pendergast, who retired April 30.

The appointment runs with the 10 legislators’ terms, all of which expire at the end of the year. As a result, he would have a roughly five-month trial period before having to seek a two-year reappointment from the new board, expected to have at least five new members.

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