Mayor Smith looms large in council race

Seven candidates for Watertown City Council surround Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith, center. They are, from left, Amy Horton, Patrick J. Hickey, Benjamin Shoen, Cliff G. Olney III, Lisa A. Ruggiero, Michelle Capone and Leonard G. Spaziani. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times photos/Illustration by Christina Knott

WATERTOWN — City voters might think there are eight candidates running for City Council in the Nov. 2 election — Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith and seven others.

The mayor and some candidates have been bickering back and forth throughout the campaign.

With his attacks on political rivals, some council candidates are saying he’s playing a role in the race in which he isn’t a candidate. He won’t be on the ballot again until 2023.

They insist that the mayor should stay on the sidelines in the nonpartisan race.

Cliff G. Olney III, who sees himself as “the opposition” to what’s going on in city government, says the election has become “a referendum on the mayor.”

In what has become an election of sniping between the mayor and candidates, Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero — who has disagreed with the mayor on several key issues during the past two years — said she became upset with Mayor Smith after he bashed her and other candidates on former Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham’s Hotline radio show.

“I don’t think he should be doing that,” she said.

In a Sept. 17 interview on the Hotline, the mayor talked about a controversy involving a funding request by the Hospice of Jefferson to receive some of the city’s $11 million American Rescue Plan money.

The mayor, who opposed the funding request, accused the councilwoman, Councilman Leonard Spaziani, candidate Patrick J. Hickey and Mr. Olney of wanting to give away the $11 million to only nonprofit organizations and not use it on city street and infrastructure projects.

“That was so wrong,” Councilwoman Ruggiero said, adding it was “a falsehood.”

It was instances like that in which he interjected himself into the race, she said. The councilwoman is up for re-election for her four-year seat.

Mr. Hickey also thinks that the mayor should stay out of the race.

“I believe Mayor Smith’s involvement in the council race is impacting every candidate,” Mr. Hickey said. “His statements are clouding the real issues on what we candidates can do for the city and what we stand for.”

While he’s taking heat from them, the mayor accuses the four candidates of “making the election about me.”

He was tired of seeing criticism on social media that candidates were posting about him, the mayor said, so he had to defend himself.

“It wasn’t me who put myself into this,” he said.

If they are going to run against him, the mayor said people should know what he’s accomplished since he was elected as mayor two years ago.

He’s gotten the city through some financial difficulties caused by the pandemic, got the state to back off a $3.1 million court project in City Hall, got a budget approved with no property tax increase and led a smooth transition with the firing of a city manager and the hiring of a new one.

He looks at issues facing the city and then makes a decision on what’s best for taxpayers, the mayor said.

But the biggest complaint has been the lack of transparency, his critics said.

Council members Ruggiero and Spaziani accuse the mayor of failing to tell them about things that he’s working on for the city, they said.

He failed to tell them that he was working on single-stream recycling, a water agreement with the town of Pamelia and the funding request from the Hospice of Jefferson County.

All three issues ended up blowing up in the mayor’s face, Councilman Spaziani said.

Perhaps no one has butted heads with the mayor more than Councilman Spaziani, who has said that he just doesn’t trust the mayor.

“The mayor is a dictator,” he said. “That’s why I’m running, just issues with him.”

As for getting involved in the election, the mayor’s strategy is to make sure he has three votes, so he can maintain control of council and get his agenda approved, Mr. Olney said.

That’s what he did when he could rely on both Sarah V. Compo Pierce and former Councilman Jesse C.P. Roshia to vote in “lock step” with him on city issues, he said. Councilman Spaziani was appointed to council after Mr. Roshia resigned in January.

The mayor hopes to get Amy Horton, who’s running for a two-year seat, and Michelle Capone, a candidate for one of two four-year seats, elected, Mr. Olney said.

“He needs to rely on that yes vote,” he said, adding that Mrs. Horton would be that rubber stamp vote.

Mrs. Horton and Mr. Hickey are running against each other for the seat vacated by the resignation of former Councilman Roshia.

To get Mrs. Horton elected, the mayor has attacked Mr. Hickey on two recent occasions, Mr. Olney said.

The mayor is trying to divert attention from the council candidate and his campaign in an effort to make voters think negatively about him, Mr. Hickey said.

Mayor Smith claimed that Mr. Hickey failed to report on his state campaign financial disclosure that local businessman P.J. Simao paid for in the Watertown Daily Times.

The financial report isn’t due yet, so it was a false accusation, Mr. Simao said.

Mayor Smith also criticized Mr. Hickey for politicizing the city’s Neighborhood Watch program by seeking votes on its Facebook page.

The Neighborhood Watch program should not be used for political purposes because the city provided in-kind services and a police officer to help it get started, the mayor said.

Last week, the mayor asked for legal advice about the situation from City Attorney Robert J. Slye, who told him that it wasn’t a city issue, but a political candidate issue.

“He tried to Robert Schorr him [Pat Hickey],” Mr. Olney said, referring to the council candidate who lost in the June primary after facing backlash from an attack by the mayor.

While he admitted that he made a mistake to encourage support with the Neighborhood Watch posting, Mr. Hickey said the city’s involvement with the program is mainly limited to providing a police officer as a liaison to the organization and with work crews installing signs.

“In my naivety and zeal to inform the Watch volunteers concerning the upcoming election, I may have gone astray, but I find it interesting that the mayor is the only member who took issue with my request for consideration of support,” Mr. Hickey said.

As for supporting Mrs. Horton, the mayor said he’s “officially” not endorsing a candidate and “unofficially, it’s no one’s business” whom he supports.

He said that his wife, Millie, put a Amy Horton campaign sign up in their Keyes Avenue front yard. After asking about that, he grudgingly acknowledged that his wife was supporting her candidacy.

“That’s my wife’s right and privilege,” he said.

But both the mayor and Mrs. Horton denied that he’s helping her campaign in any way, although they agree on city issues. They haven’t even talked to each other about the campaign, she said.

He repeated his explanation about their connection that he gave when she first announced she was running. Years ago, Mrs. Horton was a neighbor, baby sat for his children a few times and taught his wife in a Zumba class at the YMCA.

He refused to comment further about their connection.

But all the attention that Mayor Smith is getting during the campaign — either by candidates or drawing it upon himself — is causing frustration for Mrs. Horton and candidate Benjamin Shoen, they said.

“Ultimately, it’s about us and our ideas,” she said.

None of the voters she’s met during the campaign have mentioned the mayor’s role in the race, she said. They want council members to work together, stop their bickering and get to work for the city, she said.

All the bickering between the mayor and candidates isn’t good for the city, she said.

“Ultimately, you have to work together for more than two years,” she said.

Mr. Shoen said it’s been a distraction to interject the mayor during the campaign. He stressed he’s never even talked to the mayor.

Earlier this year, Mr. Shoen and Mrs. Horton wanted to be appointed to the council seat that Councilman Spaziani now occupies. The two were the only applicants seeking that seat when it was still vacant.

With the insistence of the mayor, none of the other applicants were interviewed, yet neither was ultimately appointed to the position.

Eventually, Councilman Spaziani was appointed.

He saw the irony.

“I wouldn’t even be here,” Councilman Spaziani said.

Mayor Smith was all set to go back on the Hotline next week after Mr. Graham was finished interviewing each of the candidates on his radio show.

His opponents feared it would give the mayor the last chance to rebut what they said about him during their interviews.

On Thursday morning, however, Mr. Graham said he got a call from the mayor canceling the interview, citing the results of private polling in the race.

The cancellation fueled speculation that the mayor was done campaigning and he was finally going to stay on the sidelines until election day, his critics said.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment

suzanne phillips

Thank you for writing this article Mr. Fox. It has been obvious for quite some time that Mayor Smith is not objective and aims to control as much of the City happenings as possible. I hope the Watertown voters will realize he is a bully and tries to manipulate, to his wishes, City Council, and any thing else he feels comes under the auspices of the Watertown mayor.

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