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Ogdensburg council hires lawyers to review housing report

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OGDENSBURG — The City Council agreed to hire a legal firm to review an investigative report into Ogdensburg’s housing programs and to determine whether it can be released to the public.

The council voted to hire the Wladis Law Firm of East Syracuse.

“Wladis had the best rates,” Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley said. “They also showed up to give us a presentation. I am ready to hire them.”

Leann West, who represented the firm before the council, said it will move immediately to put together a team to work on the city’s issues.

“We have strong history and experience working with municipalities,” Ms. West said. “We feel we could put a good team together.”

Councilor Daniel E. Skamperle said the city would be paying the firm more than $195 an hour for its services.

The firm will review a report compiled by City Attorney Andrew W. Silver into whether policy was being followed appropriately in the renovation and sale of two city properties. One property, 819 Knox St., became the center of debate after the Journal revealed that a family had been allowed to live there three years without paying rent or taxes.

The council has been at odds over whether the firm would be hired solely to review the report, or whether it would also consult on other matters, such as disciplinary action against City Manager Arthur J. Sciorra or Comptroller Philip A. Cosmo.

“The issue as we understand it is reviewing a document that was generated as a result of the investigation,” Ms. West said.

Mayor William D. Nelson said that the council authorized him to seek outside representation, and that the next step would be to secure a contract with the firm.

At a November meeting, Mr. Silver recused himself from making judgment on how the report should be released to the public. He also declined to assist the council in making any personnel decisions that might result from the report.

“We’re taking the advice of our attorney to hire outside counsel,” Mr. Nelson said.

Not every member of the council thought hiring a legal firm is worth the money.

“I don’t support taking on any attorney until we’ve released the document,” Mr. Skamperle said. “We’re going to end up spending more money than we lost on 819 Knox St.”

Councilor Nicholas J. Vaugh, who was not at the meeting owing to a family illness, also has been an outspoken opponent of the hire.

“If that is the will of the council that they need to review the report, hire a local attorney to do that,” he said Friday. “I think it is an unneeded expense. We’ve already spent significant money on this matter.”

Some councilors held out the possibility of using the firm’s expertise on other matters.

“I would like to possibly look at using this firm as well for an investigative process,” Councilor Michael B. Powers said. “I would love to know who the leak was.”

A portion of the city attorney’s report was leaked to a Watertown Daily Times reporter in advance of the Nov. 2 council meeting.

“I think it is important that we find out who broke the public’s trust,” Mr. Nelson said.

The councilors shared the sentiment that the city’s housing problems need to be corrected quickly so the council can move on to other business.

“This thing has gone on for too long,” Councilor Wayne L. Ashley said. “It has to come to an end, and hopefully this gets us moving.”

The council also set Dec. 5 public hearings to determine whether it will override the state-legislated 2 percent property tax cap and whether it will raise sewer fees for the coming year.

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