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City to obtain outside legal council

JOHNSTOWN — The Common Council on Tuesday night authorized the city’s two top administrators to retain outside counsel in ongoing legal matters involving the Water Board versus the city.

Late in its organizational/business meeting at City Hall, the council passed a couple last-minute resolutions that mirrored each other.

The council authorized Mayor Vern Jackson, followed by a resolution naming City Treasurer Michael Gifford, to both retain outside counsel in the legal matter of the Johnstown Water Board and Michael Capparello as president, versus the city, Jackson and Gifford.

Authorization was granted by the council “in order to protect their interests,” the resolutions said.

Officials made no public comments about their actions, but did go into a closed-door executive session for “pending and current litigation.”

The resolutions both note that the city Water Board believes the mayor, council and/or treasurer have taken actions which the board believes “violate the charter of the city of Johnstown.”

The Johnstown Water Board fired off the first volley in this legal matter on Dec. 29 when it passed a resolution. The Water Board hired Golberger & Kremer of Albany for “potential litigation.”

“They did this on their own,” 1st Ward Councilman Bradley Hayner told the council Tuesday night.

That Dec. 29 resolution stated that the “mayor, Common Council, and/or treasurer have taken certain actions which the Water Board believes violate the charter of the city of Johnstown.” The resolution goes on to state that “the Water Board has requested the city attorney to take action on its behalf to enforce those portions of the charter which the Water Board believes have been violated, and such request has been denied.”

Water Board officials went on to indicate in the Dec. 29 resolution that City Attorney Michael Poulin “has advised his client, the Johnstown Water Board, that the Common Council will not authorize the Water Board to hire outside counsel to commence litigation to enforce the charter — the Water Board has determined that it must commence legal proceedings in order to enforce the charter.”

When the Common Council near the end of 2020 adopted the city’s $13.6 million budget for 2021, cuts were made to Water Board proposals. The council passed a resolution removing a proposed $47,403 heavy equipment operator position and a $46,176 mechanical equipment operator position from the water budget. Council members also reduced the Water Board’s proposed water superintendent position by $12,000 to $58,000 annually in the budget. Cuts totaling $105,779 will now go back into the Water Department’s reserve fund. City officials maintain that the Water Department’s proposed budget every year is part of the city’s overall tentative budget and the council can make cuts as needed.

There have been ongoing issues between the Water Board and city government. City voters decided Nov.. 3 by a narrow margin to keep the Water Board in place. The city had put up a referendum to have it abolished and its oversight duties taken over by the Common Council. A Johnstown Charter Reorganization Review Commission in 2015 proposed in a similar voter proposition that the city Water Board be abolished, and city government oversee Water Department operations. That recommendation was part of a larger attempt to change the charter in several ways, but that referendum was defeated that year by voters. In more recent years, Fulton County District Attorney Chad Brown convened a county grand jury to hear complaints between city government and the Water Board that were fielded by the Johnstown Police Department. Following a three-month investigation by the grand jury, on Dec. 31, 2019, Fulton 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 an issue involving a Linden Avenue property owner who was trying to tap into city water. The 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 main recommendations for the board and city government for the future, including hiring a new superintendent.

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