Council member: we should have been told

Updated: Aug. 21, 2020 at 7:34 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - A Watertown city council member says council should have been consulted before city officials moved to keep secret a report about former city manager Rick Finn.

“Somebody could have just sent us a text and said ‘This is what’s happening, how do you feel?’ or a phone call, a personal phone call to say ‘This is where we’re at right now today, this is what Mr. Slye’s going to do. How do you feel about that?‘” council member Lisa Ruggiero said Friday.

Ruggiero was reacting to news that the city filed a ‘notice of appeal’ Wednesday in order to block an order issued Monday by state Supreme Court Justice James McClusky.

Judge McClusky ordered that the secret report into the conduct of former city manager Rick Finn be made public.

City attorney Robert Slye, after consulting with mayor Jeff Smith, directed city lawyers to file the notice of appeal, Smith said Friday.

“I would say people were caught by surprise,” the mayor acknowledged. “I know Mr. Slye had a brief discussion with me that he was going to file the notice, but at the end of the day the council has to authorize any moving forward.”

7 News has made multiple efforts to reach Slye, both by phone and email.

City Manager Ken Mix was not consulted before the notice of appeal was filed.

And city council had given no directive, taken no vote on whether to appeal. Council discussed the case in executive session Monday, and called another executive session for this Monday at 5 PM to continue discussions.

Monday’s meeting comes as the city council is under increasing pressure to release the report. In an editorial Friday, the Watertown Times called for the document to be made public.

“They should stop while they’re just somewhat behind, accept Judge McClusky’s decision and release the report without further delay,” the newspaper wrote.

Mayor Smith emphasized that council can still decide to appeal or not, and that Slye’s actions merely stopped the report from being made public before an appeal could be decided on.

Ruggiero said that’s not good enough.

" We should at least be consulted,” Ruggiero said.

“It’s not a one person decision and should not be left up to one person to decide. It should have been a council decision.”

Several council members said they are concerned about the issue of witness confidentiality. The report identifies who gave information to investigators, and council members said they are worried city employees will be unwilling to come forward in the future, if they think their names will be made public.

“People gave testimony and statements based on the condition of being anonymous,” Mayor Smith said. “They were told that their statements would be protected and I think that’s of concern and an issue the ruling doesn’t address.”

If the question of witnesses can be settled - perhaps by blacking out their identities - Ruggiero said she has no problem releasing the report.

“I think now’s the time to put it out there, and why are we spending more money to fight it when we may not have a good chance in court,” she said.

Council members Jesse Roshia and Sarah Compo said Friday they both have questions about an appeal, questions they hope to have answered Monday, including how much an appeal will cost the city.

And the city employee whose complaint led to the report said Friday that city attorney Slye and Mayor Smith should not have acted without council approval.

“We’ve never done anything like this in my tenure, as a city, to have an attorney or an attorney and a mayor make a decision this big without having all council or majority council approval,” said Erin Gardner, the suspended city Parks and Recreation Superintendent.

Gardner accused Finn last year of creating a ‘hostile work environment.’ That accusation led to a report by a company the city hired - that’s the report the city is trying to keep secret. City council in January decided Finn did not create a hostile work environment, but Finn resigned anyway.

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