JAMESTOWN – Tempers flared during Monday night’s Jamestown City Council work session after freshman city councilman Andrew Liuzzo questioned and discussed ongoing contract negotiations involving a new water and sewer agreement between the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities and the Town of Ellicott.
During last night’s city council work session, Liuzzo shared details of a correspondence he received from Town of Ellicott Supervisor Patrick McLaughlin in which Mclaughlin purportedly voiced his disappointment with the BPU for pulling a proposed water and sewer agreement from its April meeting agenda. Instead, the BPU’s negotiating team returned to the town officials new terms for the agreement and McLaughlin purportedly felt it was going against a “handshake” agreement between the two sides.
While all members of the city council apparently received McLaughlin’s correspondence, it was not sent to the mayor or any other member of the city administration, nor to officials with the BPU. Both the prior draft agreement and a new draft agreement were also included in the correspondence.
“The proposal that went to the town of Ellicott had over 50 changes to what was presented the month before,” Liuzzo said. “He is very sad that we are not working together as neighbors. And before anybody says that I care more about our neighbors than I do about the city of Jamestown, I want to make this perfectly clear, the city of Jamestown needs to get along with their neighbors.”
Jamestown Mayor Sam Teresi and councilman Tony Dolce – who was serving as president Pro Tem during the work session due to council president Marie Carrubba being absent – questioned Liuzzo on why he didn’t seek more details on the process from the mayor or a council representative on the BPU before going public with his concern.
“I was blindsided by this. I didn’t know anything about it,” Liuzzo said.
“Did you ask anybody?” Dolce responded.
“How could I ask about something I didn’t know? I was blindsided by this.” Liuzzo countered.
“Did you bother asking about it after you got this letter?” Teresi then asked.
“I am responding to this letter,” Liuzzo said.
“But did you bother asking anybody about this letter?” Teresi again asked.
“Mr. Mayor, I am responding to this letter,” Liuzzo again said, apparently feeling the appropriate time to ask about it was during the work session.
Several city officials – including Teresi, Dolce, and council woman and BPU member Kim Ecklund – reminded Liuzzo that ongoing negotiations are not something that should be discussed in open session. They also took him to task for not understanding how negotiations typically work in municipal government.
“The process is a tentative agreement between the negotiating bodies (Town of Ellicott and BPU negotiating team). It then goes to the BPU board…” Teresi said, before being interrupted by Liuzzo.
“The statement [from McLaughlin] was that they agreed with a handshake,” Liuzzo said.
“The Board of Public Utilities did? Could you show me that evidence please?” Teresi asked.
“That was the statement,” Liuzzo said.
“Do you know if the Board of Public Utilities voted on this agreement and then reneged?,” Teresi asked.
“Do you know if they did?” Liuzzo countered.
“I know that they didn’t,” Teresi responded. “The members of the Board of Public Utilities never agreed to anything.”
“I’m asking you mayor. Are you saying that there was not a tentative agreement in April and it was changed in May? is that what you’re saying?” Liuzzo asked.
“To the best of my knowledge, correct,” Teresi replied.
“You are aware of it though.” Liuzzo responded.
“I am aware that the nine members of the Board of Public Utilities – of which I am a member – never agreed to any agreement and sent it on to the city council for the final review,” Teresi said.
The mayor and other city council members also explained to Liuzzo that the city council is responsible for reviewing and ratifying any inter-municipal utility contracts ONLY after it is drafted by a negotiating team and approved by the BPU.
“Once [the BPU board members] make the tentative agreement with a public, transparent vote, then it gets sent on. That’s the handshake right there, not staff members,” Teresi said. “The ‘handshake’ is made by the members of the Board of Public Utilities. Go back and read your charter and code. Once that is done, it then goes to [the city council]. It goes through the finance committee and then on to this body for the full ratification. Once the full ratification happens, then the mayor and chief executive officer of the city – then and only then – can sign off on the agreement or choose to veto it. We weren’t even near the point in the process of having a tentative agreement because the Board of Public Utilities has not taken action on anything.”
Liuzzo joined the city council in January after winning election as an At Large councilman in November. During his six months in office he has not yet been involved in acting on a contract agreement for the city. Both Dolce and Ecklund pointed this out to Liuzzo, suggesting he should first familiarize himself with the process before publicly voicing his concerns and criticism.
Liuzzo appeared unphased by being informed he was out of line in bringing the issue up during an open work session where the public was present. When it was explained that those types of discussions are intended to take place during executive session to help maintain and protect the integrity of the negotiating process, Liuzzo said that he was only speaking in general terms and didn’t give out any specific details. However the city attorney Marilyn Fiore-Lehman told Liuzzo he did disclose some information that was part of ongoing negotiations.
Following the more than 30-minute discussion on the matter in the public portion of the meeting, the council finally entered into executive session to discuss the issue further.
According to the Jamestown Post-Journal, The last BPU and town of Ellicott water and sewer agreement contracted, which was for 10 years, expired in 2008. City officials notified town of Ellicott officials in November 2016 that they would prefer to have a new water and sewer contract agreement.
A copy of the contract that was not voted on by the board was included in the BPU’s April meeting agenda and posted online by BPU officials. The contract stated a new water and sewer deal would be for 20 years, with customers in the town of Ellicott paying two times the rate of city customers. The contract also stated the city would get 18 percent of the overall water sales.
The relationship between the city and Town of Ellicott officials has been tenuous the past year-and-a-half due to the city’s effort to annex a piece of property it owns in the Town of Ellicott / Village of Falconer in order to save an estimated $160,000 annually in tax payments. That matter is expected to be decided on by a state court later this year.