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Lewis County legislators will go without manager

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County legislators have decided to remain without a manager for the rest of the year.

“At this stage of the game, we decided there’s no point in trying to assign a county manager, especially when we’ve got the talent we have right now,” Legislature Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, said after a special meeting Monday morning.

Following a roughly half-hour executive session, the chairman announced that a resolution to appoint Brian J. Wohnsiedler, Harrisville, former executive director of the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District, as county manager had been withdrawn.

Afterward, Mr. Tabolt, who has been serving as acting manager since the April 30 retirement of former County Manager David H. Pendergast, said the county has been running well in the interim.

“It’s been great,” he said. “Everyone’s chipped in and made it very reasonable. If that continues, I’ll be fine.”

However, the semiretired farmer added, “I don’t know what my cows think about it.”

The current board members have an average of eight or nine budgets under their belts, and County Treasurer Patricia L. O’Brien and other experienced department heads should make the budget development process doable, Mr. Tabolt said.

Operating without a county manager is not unprecedented for Lewis County.

That situation occurred for a few months in both 2005 and 2008 while lawmakers searched for a new manager, as well as a five-year stint from October 1997 to October 2002.

The county manager appointment runs with the 10 legislators’ terms, all of which expire at the end of the year. Next year’s Legislature appears likely to have anywhere from five to nine new members, with only Mr. Tabolt thus far running for re-election unchallenged.

Following the November election, the incoming board members may get together to “see if they want us to start advertising and start the process again,” the chairman said. That could allow interviews essentially to begin as soon as the new Legislature is sworn in, he said.

Lawmakers initially interviewed four candidates in late April but decided to readvertise for the post after failing to land a consensus candidate. They informally chose Mr. Wohnsiedler late last month, but on July 2, voted 6-4 to table the appointment for a couple of weeks to further vet the candidate after Legislator Paul M. Stanford, D-Watson, raised concerns about his departure from his previous post.

Jefferson County Attorney David J. Paulsen subsequently sent out a memo advising Soil and Water directors and staff that “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.”

Mr. Tabolt on Monday declined to say whether any further information on Mr. Wohnsiedler was gathered or how the consensus shifted to not appointing him, noting that Lewis County Attorney Richard J. Graham also had advised county legislators not to discuss such matters.

However, Mr. Stanford said that while he didn’t get a lot of new information, he remained skeptical of Mr. Wohnsiedler’s credentials and was satisfied with the outcome of Monday’s meeting.

“My job is to protect my people and my voters and the county, and that’s what I did,” he said.

In February, it was discovered Mr. Wohnsiedler had been borrowing money against future state grants to pay operating costs, and the former director stepped down after the board said it had lost confidence in him.

In response to a request for comment, his attorney, Gabriel M. Nugent of Syracuse law firm Hiscock & Barclay, provided a two-page letter dated Monday that he is sending to Christine M. Watkins, interim director at Jefferson County Soil and Water.

“Mr. Wohnsiedler resigned from his position with the District not because he did anything wrong, but to avoid any harm to the organization he served,” Mr. Nugent wrote. “Unfortunately, he is now being harmed by continued statements that are inaccurate, unfounded, and uninformed. We ask that District personnel be directed to cease making inaccurate statements that damage Mr. Wohnsiedler’s reputation.”

The letter notes that financial practices being blamed on the former director — who typically had received positive reviews from his board — were in place before he joined the district, known to district personnel and board members and considered by many districts to be standard operating procedure.

Some district personnel have tried to make Mr. Wohnsiedler a “scapegoat” rather than taking responsibility for the issues and appear “oblivious to their duty to oversee the financial affairs of the District,” it adds.

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