Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Keeping the Controversy Alive

Although the mayor and the Common Council remain at an impasse, and there's not much new to report, John Mason has an article today in the Register-Star about the battle over a legal adviser for the Common Council: "Council, mayor at odds over legal advisor." Of interest is the fact that the mayor, who asked for a legal opinion from city attorney Carl G. Whitbeck, is now maintaining that the Council is "misinterpreting" that opinion because it supports their position. 

Whitbeck's legal opinion goes on to say, "However, this authority is limited to assisting the Common Council in effecting its duties only, and does not grant the Common Council the authority to employ an attorney to represent to City." It is this statement on which the mayor is basing his objections.

Hallenbeck is quoted in Mason's article raising the specter of lawsuits, certain to strike terror in the hearts of some Hudsonians: "At the end of the day that advisor has no legal standing to go to court for [the] city of Hudson, or represent the interests of the city in any legal capacity. What if there's a lawsuit by residents or someone outside the city, how protected is the council or the city of Hudson? They're getting advice from someone who can't represent the city on these legal issues. If the council acts on something this individual advises, and these two city attorneys [presumably Whitbeck and Andy Howard] don't agree with it, and the council proceeds anyway, I don't think city residents want to risk that type of governing."

The Council will receive the mayor's veto at the informal meeting on Monday, February 9, and will likely vote on overriding the veto at their regular meeting on Tuesday, February 17. As Gossips has already calculated, if all of the aldermen vote as they did in January, they will override the mayor's veto. When the resolution was first voted on, there were 1,486 affirmative votes. A two-thirds majority1,350 affirmative votesis required to override a mayoral veto.

1 comment:

  1. Until our founding proprietors agreed to disband, the city formerly had two governing bodies with overlapping duties, shared between the proprietors and the Common Council.

    At last week's meeting of the council's Public Works Committee, I offered to explain the city's vulnerability to a lawsuit if it persists with the idea that the sewer separation project is exempt from environmental review.

    Even without their own advisor, our city legislators can pose certain legal questions to the Department of State which mere citizens are in no position to do.

    All city officials are aware that anyone, the public included, can make inquiries concerning the State Environmental Quality Review Act to the state's SEQR analysts.

    But rather than inquire about the potential for a lawsuit even in the most general outlines, I was informed that a submitted description of the complaint would be assessed by attorney Whitbeck.

    Leaving aside the question of the council's willingness to ponder anything on its own, it's fair to wonder, based on past experience, whether and if the council should put any stock in Mr. Whitbeck's opinions?

    The Register Star story quotes Common Council President Moore saying that Hudson is structured to have a "strong mayor." But whether individual mayors are weak or strong, in the real world Hudson is structured to have a disproportionately powerful legal staff, who are retained by the mayor.

    The one characteristic all these counselors share is that they habitually see things in terms of what the city can get away with, and rarely if ever ask what is the right thing to do.

    We all became expert on this attitude during the reign of "Corporate Counsel" Cheryl Roberts.

    To take only one example of the inordinate power assumed by legal advisors who answer ultimately to the mayor's interests, recall the Standard Oil controversy which stretched from March to May 2013.

    Now recall our months of wasted time and effort thanks to the intransigent utterances of that calculating attorney!

    We were proven right in the end - and the lawyer proven wrong - but in the meantime, Roberts routinely flummoxed our rare opportunities to address the mayor's legal brain trust by her feigned expertise on subjects of which she was totally ignorant, by her "misunderstandings" (her favorite word) of our simplest questions, or sometimes by physically looking away when documents or evidence were placed in view.

    For the people with the most power in this city - individuals who customarily advise every committee and commission as well as the HDC and the HCDPA - it's always and only about what the city can get away with, which usually translates to what the mayor can get away with.

    The following Gossips post describes Mr. Whitbeck's part in the Standard Oil controversy, the same man who will address the council's current questions on SEQRA (because none of our representatives knows how to pick up a phone and ask the state themselves).

    As a self-professed local historian who certainly knows better, Mr. Whitbeck appeared as a citizen before the Legal Committee on April 24, 2013, and produced document after document showing that Standard Oil was never present in the South Bay before the time that Standard Oil had purchased the property.

    Whether he was trying to sway the more simple-minded, or just provide cover for the more recalcitrant aldermen in a typical dilemma, Mr. Whitbeck preserved deniability for himself by never stating that Standard Oil was never in the South Bay.

    The Standard Oil story shows the hugely disproportionate power imbalance enjoyed by our attorneys who are retained by the mayor, and the story deserves re-reading in the present context.

    I can think of no better example to clarify the debate on whether or not the council should retain its own legal advisor.