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St. Lawrence County moving ahead with compact lawsuit

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County is proceeding with a lawsuit to recoup millions of dollars it is owed from a tribal-state casino compact even though some legislators are unsure whether a straw poll conducted in executive session constituted authorization.

Last August, the county Board of Legislators agreed to retain the Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, to represent it in litigation if it found it necessary to sue for the $3 million it was owed.

More than $12 million was due St. Lawrence and Franklin counties and the towns of Massena, Brasher, Bombay and Fort Covington at the time Wladis was hired. Under the compact between the state and St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the money represents the counties’ and towns’ combined share of proceeds from the reservation’s casino.

The money was placed in escrow because of a dispute St. Regis Mohawks had with the state over its exclusivity being breached by a slot machine operation on Ganienkeh Territory in Altona.

“Our perspective is the same,” Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said. “We want to get the money that we’re owed and no options are off the table.”

During an executive session at a committee meeting Monday, a straw poll was taken that asked legislators whether they objected to the lawsuit going forward and their reasons for any opposition. The vote was 3-9 against proceeding, with Legislators Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, Gregory M. Paquin, D-Massena, and Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, absent. Those who voted against proceeding with a lawsuit, which was how the question was worded, were Legislators Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon; Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, and Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid.

Attorney Mark N. Wladis referred questions about the status of the lawsuit to Mr. Putney.

“We discussed a matter of litigation,” Mr. Putney said. “We will be providing the necessary information at the appropriate time.”

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire, who did not return a phone call for comment, and legislators determined that the straw poll fell under the guidelines of discussing litigation in an executive session and did not have to be revealed as action taken.

But Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said that straw polls can in many instances be considered a vote.

“If the law firm is moving ahead, obviously action was taken,” he said.

In such cases, there should be a public record of minutes that identifies the vote. The minutes should be available for a Freedom of Information Law request within a week, Mr. Freeman said.

Legislator Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, said she was not sure the poll went beyond the legislature’s previous stance when it hired Wladis but that the discussion could have been more clear.

“It should have been a recorded vote but it wasn’t,” she said.

The meaning of the straw poll was confusing because it did not ask legislators directly whether they supported proceeding with a lawsuit, but rather if they objected to advancing the litigation. The semantic difference is unimportant because the result would likely be the same if the question were reversed, Mr. Freeman said.

Mrs. Brothers said the question could have been framed so its meaning was clarified.

“It was an indirect vote and it probably should have been a direct one,” she said. “It was my understanding it was a general consensus. It was an opportunity for those not in agreement to say so. I came out of that meeting with people not quite sure whether a resolution was needed.”

Legislator Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, said he thought Mr. Putney was feeling out the board but that nothing formal was concluded.

“I wouldn’t say it got authorized,” he said. “Jon laid out the options. I figured ‘proceed’ means we’ll draw a resolution up and take it to the full board.”

Mr. Morrill declined to discuss his vote but said that he thinks decisions should be more transparent.

“I will ask that if we take an action, we should do it publicly,” he said.

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