Removing Olney? The process, the reaction & the timeframe

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 5:16 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - It’s believed to be a first: Watertown’s Board of Ethics is recommending that city council move forward with the process of removing one of its members, Cliff Olney, from his seat. Now that it’s in the hands of the other 4 members, what do they think and when could proceedings begin?

“It is the unanimous opinion of the City of Watertown Ethics Board that Council Member Clifford G. Olney, III should be referred to a hearing before the City of Watertown City Council.”

City Clerk Ann Saunders read the board’s recommendation at Monday night’s council meeting. The board unanimously found that Olney violated city code and general municipal law and recommended that city council begin a hearing process to remove Olney from office if it’s determined he consistently and intentionally violated city code and municipal law.

It stems from an ethics complaint made by Mayor Jeff Smith against Olney for publicizing information from an executive session that should have remained private.

Smith says the decision shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“We should follow that recommendation of the ethics board. I don’t think they just nilly-willy issue that recommendation,” said Smith.

Olney says Smith is a hypocrite and has done the same thing he is accusing him of.

“For them to come to the finding of anything other than there may be more that needs to be looked at more closely, I am surprised,” said Olney.

According to the city’s charter, it is now up to the other 4 members of council to set a time and place for a hearing and possible trial.

If proceedings do happen, it will take a majority of all members of council to either censure or remove Olney from office.

Council Member Lisa Ruggiero says she was also surprised by the decision but feels a hearing does need to happen.

“If somebody is going to be accused of something, then, well, I think they have to produce the evidence to see what that is,” she said.

Ruggiero is referring to the evidence brought forward by Smith, which she says the council members have not had a chance to review.

Council member Patrick Hickey agrees with Ruggiero, saying more investigation into the claims is needed as long as the information becomes available to them.

7 News has filed a Freedom of Information Law request in order to see Smith’s ethics complaint, but it hasn’t been made available.

In a letter from City Manager Ken Mix, the city says it “anticipates being in a position to either grant or deny your request” on or before October 18.

Council Member Sarah Compo Pierce says she has more questions that need to be answered about the hearing process before she makes a decision.

When asked what to expect moving forward, Mix says it’s unprecedented and has never been done in his 38 years of working for the city in some capacity.