February 16, 2011
Attorney Resigns, Board Refuses To Reveal Payout
How can you vote to spend taxpayer money, then refuse to let the taxpayers know how much of their money you're about to spend?
Ask the Southampton Town Board.
Last Friday board members voted to accept town attorney Michael Sordi's resignation and enter into a settlement agreement with him. Following the vote they referred all questions to Deputy Town Attorney Kathleen Murray who, in turn, refused to release the public record.
It was only after strenuous insistence by The Independent, which included forwarding pertinent sections of the state Public Officers Law and Freedom of Information Law court decisions to the board, not to mention a communiqué to the supervisor from Bob Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government citing similar court cases, that Murray released the agreement late Monday afternoon. Town officials will cut a check to Sordi that covers unused vacation and sick days, plus a month's pay, which is about $9850 before taxes. He'll also continue to receive medical benefits until the end of May. The agreement did not include a total figure.
The air in the corridors outside Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst's offices in Town Hall was thick with tension last Friday afternoon – officials whispering and scurrying about, an indication something was up.
After an almost four hour confab behind closed doors, the supervisor opened a work session for less than an hour's discussion about the recently-released audit of town's finances. (Visit www.indyeastend.com and click on last week's Independent for coverage of the document.) The agenda item dispensed, Throne-Holst sent local media from the conference room calling for a second executive session.
Breaking with open meetings protocol, she neglected to mention a special town board meeting would be held following the executive session. Instead, others alerted reporters to the impending vote. Councilwoman Nancy Graboski affirmed a resolution would be up for a vote, but declined to say more about it. Traditionally in Southampton notice of a special meeting is posted, along with a list of resolutions that will be subject of a vote.
When an open session was called again, the supervisor read a resolution accepting Sordi's resignation and authorizing her to sign an agreement with him. The resolution passed by a three to two vote, with Councilmen Chris Nuzzi and Jim Malone abstaining from the vote. Nuzzi would later say he disagreed with the economic aspect of the measure.
But no one would say what the economic impact would be.
Instead, they initially said the agreement was a confidential personnel matter.
That's a "red herring," according to Freeman. Called Friday afternoon for an opinion, he emphasized the agreement between the town and Sordi is a public document, just like any other contract the town enters into. "The law requires disclosure and it is crystal clear that public employees have less privacy than anybody else," Freeman said. Whatever public employees are paid is taxpayer money, he emphasized.
There are "numerous" judicial decisions that affirm such settlements should be a part of a public record, Freeman, whose committee toils under the auspices of the Department of State and is charged with overseeing the implementation of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws, advised. Since its inception in 1977, the Committee on Open Government has provided tens of thousands of opinions on the implementation of the two laws. Committee members are also the acknowledged experts on personal privacy protection law.
Confronted by The Independent Friday, none of the members of the town Republican majority -- Nuzzi, Graboski or Jim Malone – seemed cognizant of Freedom of Information Law.
Malone said that while he abstained from the vote, he is still bound by provisions promising confidentiality in the agreement.
According to an opinion offered by Committee on Open Government experts, "Although instances have arisen in which agreements or settlements have included provisions requiring confidentiality, those kinds of agreements have uniformly been struck down and found to be inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law."
Nuzzi, Graboski, and Malone deferred to Murray and the supervisor regarding disclosure of Sordi's payout. Throne–Holst and Councilwoman Bridget Fleming left town hall immediately after the vote, late for a meeting upisland. The GOP threesome continued the work session for less than an hour before entering the third executive session of the day.
On Monday the supervisor said "On a personal level, I don't have an issue discussing [the settlement] but I need to know I'm not exposing the town in any way, shape, or form. The last thing I want is any more fallout from this."
There's been fallout aplenty already.
Chosen by Throne-Holst, Sordi, a former member of the Nassau County Attorney's Office, was hired in April of 2010 at a salary of $115,000 per year. According to town hall insiders, displeasure with his performance was evident within six months. By the end of last year word circulated that some members of the town board were interested in making a change. Revelations last week about an oversight on Sordi's part that could cost Southampton millions was apparently the last straw.
Attorneys for Nancy Genovese, who filed a $70 million lawsuit against the town called for a default judgment from the court because the town failed to meet its deadline for response to the claim. Genovese announced her suit against the town and Suffolk County last summer, alleging she was wrongfully arrested and detained in 2009. Police locked her up for taking pictures outside Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. At the time of the arrest, she had two guns and dozens of rounds of ammunition in her car. Genovese said she was taking pictures to post on a patriotic website and had been to a local shooting range prior to the arrest.
Representing the town, Sordi was supposed to answer the claim by last October. The filing for a default award was made in December.
Southampton resident Elaine Kahl raised the issue during the town board's February 8 meeting, apparently surprising the GOP majority. They claim the supervisor told them the matter was being handled and that Sordi was coping with the death of two family members at the time the paperwork was due. According to one published report, he admitted he was caught up in personal matters and forgot to make the submission.
Throne-Holst, meanwhile, dismissed the Republican rebuke as mere political grandstanding.
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