Johnstown Water Board moves to hire law firm

Move is in response to recent grand jury action in County Court

JOHNSTOWN — The Johnstown Water Board has taken action to retain an Albany law firm to prepare a “response” to a Fulton County grand jury report that investigated the board.

Action taken by the board Jan. 13 to hire the Hinckley Allen law firm will also litigate possible future legal matters related to the report.

The water board passed a resolution to retain the firm to “prepare a response to the grand jury report and litigate all matters related thereto for an initial retainer of $10,000, with future billings to be capped at an additional $10,000, for a total amount not to exceed $20,000.”

A county grand jury report on an investigation into the Johnstown Water Board made public Jan. 7 didn’t call for indictments. But the report made four recommendations for the board and city government for the future.

Those recommendations were: the water board should hire a water superintendent, establish a chain of command for the Water Department, the board must have bylaws in place, and the city and water board should take all steps to ensure any future land projects go through necessary steps to get state Department of Health approval for installing water lines prior to selling.

Following a three month investigation by the grand jury, the report, dated Dec. 11, 2019, was filed with Fulton County Court. On Dec. 31, 2019, County Court Judge Polly A. Hoye signed an order accepting the report and allowing it to be made public. The report mainly centered on two issues — how city Water Department employees report their work duties and are paid, and a Linden Avenue property owner who was trying to tap into city water.

Water Board Vice President John Swierzowski — the highest ranking board member — didn’t return a phone call Monday seeking comment on retention of the Hinckley Allen law firm.

Johnstown 1st Ward Councilman Bradley Hayner — the Common Council’s liaison to the water board — attended the Jan. 13 meeting. He said Monday that it was his understanding the board didn’t have to retain legal services related to the grand jury report.

“I don’t think they’re obligated,” Hayner said. “I believe it’s optional.”

He added that it was his understanding the City Charter indicates the water board must get approval from the Common Council before it hires outside legal counsel.

“They didn’t get it approved,” Hayner said.

City Attorney Michael Poulin — who also attended the Jan. 13 water board meeting — also couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

Fulton County District Attorney Chad Brown issued a news release on the water board probe and made the 16-page report public on Jan. 7. He said it was not a “criminal matter,” but 27 witnesses testified for “legislative, executive or administrative action in the public interest.”

“Many witnesses testified to an ongoing dynamic between the Water Board and the city that has led to a situation where neither side is able to work together,” the grand jury report stated. “At the heart of the issues are disagreements over whether the Water Board is independent of the city. Among the issues that have occurred are who has final approval of hiring employees, how is money spent, and who has the authority to give Water Department employees directives. This has led to a break down in the communication between the Water Board and the city.”

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.