Watertown’s attorney voiced legal concerns before lawmakers did golf course deal

Published: Dec. 14, 2022 at 3:24 PM EST
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - Two weeks before city lawmakers voted in favor of an asset purchase agreement with the Watertown Golf Club, City Attorney Bob Slye told them he had legal concerns about the deal.

7 News obtained a November 28 letter from Slye to Watertown City Manager Ken Mix. In it, Slye lays out his legal opinion with supporting documents.

“I am legally concerned that the City has not commissioned an appraisal (or appraisals) of the real property to be conveyed and of the personal property which accompanies the sale,” Slye wrote. “Given the purchase price, I respectfully recommend that the City obtain at least two independent real estate appraisals prior to proceeding.”

Slye writes that city and town of Watertown tax records show the assessed “full market value” of the golf course property is $476,200.

City council voted 3 to 2 on Monday to enter an agreement to buy the Watertown Golf Club for $3.4 million. Council approved its intent to purchase the land on November 7.

City council voted to get a third-party appraisal done, but only after it entered a binding asset purchase agreement to do the $3.4 million deal.

Slye cited a section of the state Constitution and an excerpt from a New York Conference of Mayors publication, which states: “When purchasing real property, a municipal legislative body has a fiduciary duty to acquire the property by bona fide purchase agreement. Upon the most beneficial terms, including price, in the public interest. A purchase price grossly in excess of a recent appraised value or a recent sale price may be an unconstitutional gift.”

Slye also cited this 1989 opinion from the state Comptroller’s Office:

“It is our opinion that a municipality, when purchasing real property, has a fiduciary duty to acquire the property by bona fide purchase upon the most beneficial terms and conditions, including price, in the public interest and not in an arbitrary or capricious manner.”

“You have to be cautious that you’re not significantly overpaying. That it could be perceived or looked at as a gift, in violation of the New York State Constitution. You ought to take that advice and follow through and make sure that your i’s are dotted, t’s are crossed, and you’re doing the appropriate thing with taxpayers’ money,” said Mayor Jeff Smith, who voted against the purchase agreement.

Sarah Compo Pierce, the other council member opposed to the deal, said, “With an expenditure of public funds this significant, there should have been an appraisal before anything was agreed to to ensure we are getting a fair deal for the taxpayer.

Council Member Cliff Olney, who supported the deal, calls Slye’s memo “a poor legal opinion.”

“I did listen to the city attorney. I didn’t agree with him on many things. That’s why I asked to have him leave two times this year because I don’t trust his legal advice and I don’t trust it in this situation,” he said.

And Council Member Lisa Ruggiero, who also supported the deal, says Slye’s suggestion came weeks too late.

“Bob Slye sent us a memo dated November 28 and it was three weeks after we had our meeting where we approved moving forward with the purchase,” she said.

Council Member Pat Hickey voted to do the deal and also believes an appraisal should be done. He says it will bring more transparency.

He goes on to call the deal a golden opportunity for the city to get more land and says it will benefit the city in the long term.

You can see Slye’s full letter and supporting documents here