Despite an attorney's advice to the contrary, Mayor Jean Saroodis refused to recuse herself from an executive session in the village of Weedsport on Feb. 8 in which an unspecified conflict of interest arose, according to meeting minutes The Citizen obtained this week.
The state Committee on Open Government released the Feb. 8 executive session meeting minutes to The Citizen this week after Saroodis had sent them to the committee for review. The village has refused to make the minutes available to the public despite a request from The Citizen, a refusal that is a violation of open meeting law, said Robert Freeman, the executive director of the Committee on Open Government.
The Feb. 8 meeting minutes provided by the committee indicate that a motion was made to enter an executive session to discuss "personnel matters" with attorney Colin Leonard.
The minutes indicate Leonard requested for the record to "reflect that his advice to Mayor Saroodis was to recuse herself from the meeting of which (Saroodis) refused. The advice and request was made due to a conflict of interest."
Additionally, the minutes indicate discussion resulted in a "majority consensus" vote "to place the involved employee on paid administrative leave commencing Feb. 9, 2018 until a Decision could be made regarding the employee’s employment."
Leonard, an employment and labor attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King law firm in Syracuse, did not respond to requests for comment.
The employee in question was not named.
So far, three attorneys in addition to David Thurston, the village's regular attorney, have been involved in village matters in recent weeks. Jan. 3 special meeting minutes indicate attorney Caroline Westover, whose practice includes employment, labor, layoffs and employee discipline, of Bond, Schoeneck & King, was present in the executive session in addition to Thurston.
On Feb. 28, Saroodis refused to enter into an executive session without the presence of another attorney, Richard Graham, who was there as a representative on behalf of an unnamed employee. During that same meeting, following the executive session, the village board voted to hire Bond, Schoeneck & King to represent the village for its "situation."
Saroodis, all four village trustees, Thurston, Graham and Westover have yet to answer questions about the situation, including what is the mayor's "conflict" referred to in the Feb. 8 minutes.
Saroodis' son, James Saroodis, is employed by the village as the superintendent of public works. When The Citizen inquired this week about the status of James' employment, the village clerk, Jeannine Powers, said she "cannot comment on that issue at this time."
According to the Cayuga County Civil Service's records, James is still currently employed by the village, but that agency said it is unable to share whether or not he was placed on paid administrative leave.
The issue of the Feb. 8 executive session meeting minutes came to light in a Feb. 14 village board meeting in which the board decided it could not vote to approve the Feb. 8 minutes. At the same time, Trustee Chris Lukins was released from his position as deputy mayor for unspecified reasons.
At that time, Mayor Saroodis stated that if the minutes were approved it could put the village in a bad position.
In a letter the state Committee on Open Government's Freeman sent to Weedsport on Feb. 27 in response to the mayor's request for his opinion on the minutes, Freeman critiqued additional flaws in the minutes.
The use of the word personnel "has been rejected by the courts," Freeman said. Going into an executive session citing merely "personnel matters" is inadequate because it does not "identify the subject matter to be discussed" with the public, which is necessary "to qualify for entry into executive session," Freeman said.
Freeman also informed Mayor Saroodis that "a record must be maintained indicating the manner in which each member cast his or her vote," so the verbiage in the minutes of a "majority consensus" vote is also insufficient.
Lastly, Freeman reiterated that "the open meeting law requires that when action is taken during an executive session, minutes indicating the nature of the action taken, the date and the vote of the members must be prepared and made available on request within one week of the executive session."
The Citizen reached out Trustees Chris Lukins and Steve Sims with no response, and received no comment from Trustees Chere Perkins and Harry Hinman. Mayor Saroodis has not returned messages for comment, and James Saroodis was not available at the public works offices on Thursday.
Harriet Tubman Home, Inc., and the National Park Service are close to finalizing an agreement that will detail how the entities will manage the main sites associated with the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn.
Frank Barrows, superintendent of Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome and project lead for the Tubman park, said Wednesday that the implementation agreement is under National Park Service internal legal reviews. An executed agreement is expected within the current fiscal year.
The federal government's fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Barrows didn't have a specific timetable for the completion of the agreement, but explained that negotiations are ongoing between the Tubman home and National Park Service.
"It's important for us to have a full understanding of how resources will move back and forth between the park service and the Harriet Tubman Home and how we'll be able to work in cooperation to preserve and protect the resources associated with Tubman," he said.
Harriet Tubman Home President and CEO Karen Hill described the implementation agreement as a broad document that will guide how the two sides will operate the park. The parties will be responsible for jointly managing the South Street property where Tubman's brick residence and the Home for the Aged are located.
The implementation agreement won't require any additional approvals from the federal or state governments. But a conservation easement, which is necessary for the National Park Service to have a role at the South Street property, will require the state attorney general's review.
Hill expects the conservation easement process will begin once the implementation agreement is finalized.
One issue the implementation agreement could help address is staffing. Once the park is fully operational, it's anticipated that National Park Service rangers will be on site. Despite the park being formally established last year, park rangers haven't had a permanent presence at the Tubman home because the implementation agreement isn't in effect.
Barrows noted that park rangers have been able to assist the Tubman home during times of need. When a Tubman home staffer was ill, park rangers filled in to provide tours. And when larger groups visited the site, park rangers helped with programming.
Once the implementation agreement is completed, Barrows said it's possible that rangers could be available for temporary assignments at the park this year.
"We've been fortunate that we've been able to work that out at least in this interim period," Hill said of staffing. "Our expectation is that that becomes something that is more facile once we have an agreement in place on how we share those resources."
The National Park Service's work at the Thompson Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on Parker Street continues.
Barrows said the agency's preservation crew is at the historic site and is working on renovating the church and neighboring parsonage. The crew is restoring window frames at the parsonage and have nearly finished improvements to the front porch.
Contracts are being prepared to remove the existing roof, which will be replaced with cedar roof shingles. Chimney repair work is also planned and a bathroom that is complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act will be installed, according to Barrows.
There is also some other basic work being done at the sites, including basement and foundation repairs and replacement of heating and cooling systems.
"They're moving right along," Barrows said.
Hill is looking to secure federal funding that would finish renovations at the brick residence and enable visitors to access the structure.
The Harriet Tubman Home organization has spent "considerable resources" on the site, she explained. Now she's hoping the federal government will come through with support.
"I believe that there's an openness about doing all that is possible to bring the resources forward to help complete the Tubman brick residence so we can add that to the body of work that has already been completed at the Tubman site and make the brick residence a full part of the tour," she said.
She estimated that the final renovations would cost about $400,000. Most of the exterior work has been completed, she said, but the interior needs to be finished. And the Tubman home would like to install a lift at the rear of the brick residence that would allow those in wheelchairs to enter the first floor of the home.
Beyond assisting at the Tubman home, the National Park Service is establishing a regular presence in Auburn.
Beginning this month, park rangers will participate in the city's First Friday events. Last week, a park ranger delivered a presentation on the basics of the national park system.
The agency's goal of joining the First Friday event lineup, Barrows said, is starting the educational process about what it means to have a national park in the area.
"We're very excited to start building those kinds of relationships and participating in collaborative programming," he said.
The annual Tubman pilgrimage is a few months away, but Hill shared some details about the event.
The pilgrimage will be held Saturday, June 2. It will begin with an 8:45 a.m. service at Tubman's grave site in Fort Hill Cemetery. Later in the day, a program will be held at Auburn High School.
Hill said the program will recognize the work of U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Katko. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, and Katko, R-Camillus, introduced legislation that would ensure Tubman's likeness is placed on the $20 bill.
Park rangers will staff the Tubman home during the pilgrimage, Hill said. In the past, they had to close the property during the pilgrimage ceremony.
PORT BYRON — Parents voiced their concerns over the safety of Port Byron schools Thursday night, and district officials said that new safety measures are in the works.
Mark Snyder, the safety coordinator for Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES, addressed over 90 people in the audience at a board of education meeting. He said that after a 12-year-old was charged with creating threatening posts on social media last month, a meeting was held to address improvements to the school's safety.
Snyder said he, the district's safety committee, a member of the Port Byron Police Department and others developed a list of things the district can work on, including updating the district's emergency communication protocols and getting specialized threat assessment training for staff.
Snyder said he invited the state police and the Port Byron police to work with him on creating a comprehensive safety assessment for the district, which will tackle things including whether the district has adequate parking lot lightning, which Snyder said he would look at after he was done with the board meeting. He also praised features the district has, like a system where people can't get into different doors in the building with an electronic pass.
Snyder said it would be hard to say what the district could have done differently with that threat, but noted that some people criticized how the district communicated the threat.
Superintendent Neil O'Brien said that he regrets posting about the incident on Facebook instead of reaching out to parents directly through the district's School Messenger system.
"If I had to over it again, I would have done a robo-call," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said the district has made a lot of safety improvements to the district in the years he has been with the district. He has said there weren't functional security cameras when he first came to the district. He argued that studies have shown that making students not feel alienated by reaching out to them helps prevent threats from students. He said after the meeting that he felt improving the district's graduation rate was one of the biggest ways the district helped students not feel alienated and feel successful.
That February threat was not the only unnerving incident the district has faced in recent weeks. On Wednesday, state police charged a 13-year-old with making claims of harming other students. And a student on Monday had falsely reported seeing a bomb threat on social media.
Parent Mark Emett said he hasn't brought his son to school for the last three days because he doesn't feel it is safe, adding that he wants to see a paid guard at the school.
Port Byron physical education teacher Angie Hitchcock said that the district is safe, and that if she didn't feel the district was safe, she wouldn't have her own son attending.
Kelsie Hoffer asked how someone could stop a person from bringing a gun into the building. She suggested that she could have brought a weapon into Thursday night's meeting without anyone knowing otherwise.
"I could have gotten at least four shots off before (student resource officer) had gotten me, and that is a very scary thought," Hoffer said.
AUBURN — After failing to get state support, the city of Auburn may bond for $2,250,000 to upgrade the disinfection process of its wastewater treatment plant and to map the city's sewer system.
Seth Jensen, Auburn's director of municipal utilities, gave city councilors the lay of the wastewater land Thursday night and explained where those funds are needed.
About $2 million of the proposed amount would go toward upgrading a 24-year-old UV system, the last part of the treatment process that helps disinfect the effluent. Currently the city spends about $40,000 a year fixing the system, Jensen said, and it can't even handle the design's maximum capacity of 24.5 million gallons per day.
The system caps out about 19 million gallons per day, which concerns Jensen considering the heavier storm and flow events the region experienced this past summer.
Jensen hopes to expand the new UV system's useful life to 40 years by housing it in a pole barn. This would reduce algae growth and protect the system from outside elements.
For two years the city applied to the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Water Quality Improvement Project program to get funding for the upgrades. Jensen said both times were unsuccessful. Should the bond ordinance be approved by councilors next week, the bonding period could be 20 or 30 years, and Jensen hopes the project would be completed by November 2019 at the latest.
"This is a good water quality project," Jensen said. "This isn't (in) the (Owasco) lake watershed, but it's a tributary to the next community down. It's a disinfection project, and it's there for the community beyond the city of Auburn, so, it's good."
The additional $250,000, Jensen and the city's planning and economic development team have proposed, would go towards mapping the sewer and storm system and labeling manholes. The project would also allow a condition assessment of the infrastructure and determine areas to focus and upgrade for the future.
Councilors are expected to vote on bonding for the project at next week's meeting 6 p.m. Thursday, March 15 at Memorial City Hall, 24 South St.
In other news:
• Auburn Police Chief Shawn Butler has had times in his career where he could not hold seized firearms from an individual, though he wanted to and wished he could have.
A recent incident with police instigated the chief to look at something called "Red Flag" legislation, he told councilors Thursday night. The law allows officers to keep possessed firearms following a probable cause investigation and court order to keep someone from harming his or herself or others. The law still requires due process, where the individual can respond to the evidence presented in court, according to Butler's presentation.
Butler said the only way law enforcement can intervene with firearms now is if a person is declared mentally incompetent, something that does not happen often. He worries about suicide the most, and cited a Center for Disease Control study that shows of nearly 43,000 people who took their own life in 2014, about half used a firearm.
"We've returned firearms against our better judgement," he said. "I have trouble sleeping thinking about that."
Currently legislation called "Extreme Risk Protection Orders" is floating through the U.S. Senate and the state Assembly. Butler has reached out to both state and federal representatives asking for their support. Rep. John Katko has told Butler he supports it. He hopes councilors will give their support at next week's meeting, too.
"I applaud you for taking a proactive approach in response to a specific issue in our community, said Councilor Jimmy Giannettino. "To me, this is common sense."
Councilor Dia Carabajal said Butler had her support, and Councilor Debby McCormick said she didn't understand why the law hadn't been passed already.
• On International Women's Day, abolitionist Harriet Tubman was honored a little early Thursday night with a city proclamation naming Saturday, March 10 Harriet Tubman Day. Pauline Copes-Johnson, the great-great-grandniece of the "Station Master of the Underground Railroad" received the plaque from Mayor Michael Quill.
Copes-Johnson took the opportunity to make mention of her ancestor's potential to be placed on the $20 bill, though that project appeared to stall when President Donald Trump's administration came into office.
"I'm hoping she'll be on the $20 bill, and if she's not on the $20 bill, I'm hoping they'll make a $25 bill," she said, laughing.