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Mayor files suit - Council, controller, golf pro are named

Friday, March 14, 2014 - Updated: 10:24 AM

By ALISSA SCOTT

alissa.scott@recordernews.com

Mayor Ann Thane is suing the Common Council, the city controller, and Joseph Merendo because an agreement could not be reached on Merendo's contract as the city's golf pro.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Montgom-ery County Supreme Court, alleges that when Deputy Mayor Diane Hatzenbuhler signed Merendo's contract last month, it was against the city charter, therefore rendering the contract null and void.

Thane is seeking to invalidate Merendo's contract and prohibit city controller Matthew Agresta from paying the golf pro. On Thursday, Agresta said he will hold Merendo's pay as long as there is legal action in play.

The lawsuit also aims to establish a temporary restraining order against the Common Council. It would forbid the aldermen from executing any contracts on behalf of the city, unless the mayor is absent or incapacitated. Additionally, it would negate a proposed amendment that restructures and gives the council total control over the Golf Commission.

By Thursday afternoon, Thane said Judge Joseph M. Sise signed the temporary restraining order.

She said she must protect "the wishes of our people that have created a strong form of mayoral governance."

"This is a charter that was voted on and adopted by the residents of our city," Thane said Thursday. "They expect their elected officials to perform their duties responsibly and work for their best interests."

Third Ward Alderman Ronald J. Barone Sr. said the suit is "utterly ridiculous."

"Let's go to court," Barone said. "It seems like there's no options with the mayor. It's her way or no way. That's no longer going to happen."

According to the court documents, Hatzenbuhler and the rest of the council negotiated with Merendo even though they were "clearly aware that the mayor had refused to sign" the contract. Thane has said the contract fails to protect the interests of the taxpayers and golfers.

"Instead of recognizing the requirements of the city of Amsterdam charter ... the Common Council unilaterally negotiated the lease in violation of the applicable," the papers say. "They simply believe that they have the unilateral power to usurp the mayor's constitutional and statutory authority in complete disregard of the city charter."

The court papers say the council negotiated "in secret" with Merendo, which resulted in the aldermen putting up a resolution Jan. 1 -- their first day in office -- authorizing the mayor to contract with him.

Though the resolution was passed unanimously, Thane vetoed it. Then, the council overrode the veto.

That's when they put up a resolution that allowed Hatzenbuhler to sign Merendo's contract. Hatzenbuhler signed the contract last week and she and other aldermen have since said Merendo should be free to head up to the course and begin work for the upcoming season.

Fifth Ward Alderman Richard Leggiero said they need to work toward setting rates and reconstructing the golf commission -- which no longer has a chairman, as the council has also passed a resolution this winter that removed all non-city residents from boards and committees.

However, the restraining order that is now in effect does not allow the council to take over the golf commission.

The suit says the council is "creating a mockery of the local and state laws with their repeated attempts to circumvent them and empower themselves."

The fact that council members have driven this to the courts, Thane said, rather than compromise, is "reprehensible."

"We should be focusing on growing the economy, the budget, and the condition of infrastructure and properties," she said. "Instead, the council is engaging in political gamesmanship. We don't have time for this nonsense."

The initial hearing is scheduled for Thursday, March 20. Thane said the aldermen must hire counsel immediately as they need to submit their papers by Monday.

Barone indicated the council isn't looking to hire an attorney in haste.

"We'll have to look at it and see what we have to do," he said.

He does know one thing, however.

"When we make that budget, I'm deducting it from [Gerard DeCusatis, corporation counsel's] salary," Barone said. "That's where our attorney fees are coming from. We're not using taxpayer money."

Thane said she will use money designated for hiring outside counsel for situations such as this.

First Ward Alderman Edward Russo said he just wants to move on.

"We're trying to move forward and the mayor is trying to move us back," Russo said. "We want to work together. I'm the kind of person who wants to work together. The mayor is putting on a show, but no one is buying tickets."

Second Ward Alderwoman Valerie Beekman said she wants to "stay out of this whole mess."

Merendo refused to comment.

     

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