Pool, ‘Golf Gate’ among major issues in mayoral race

From left to right: candidates for mayor Cody Horbacz, Jeff Smith and Allison Crossman are introduced at the Meet the Candidates Luncheon held by the Women’s Council of Realtors on Thursday in Watertown. Julia Hopkins/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — This fall’s mayoral race is practically a repeat of the primary in June.

Many of the issues are the same. Voters can still choose from four candidates.

But it took a judge to get both Councilman Cody J. Horbacz and Allison I. Crossman on the ballot after they finished in a second-place tie behind former Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith in the June 25 primary.

And then there’s former council candidate Cliff G. Olney III remaining in the race as a write-in candidate. He finished a distant fourth in the primary.

The candidates say constructing a $3.1 million pool and bathhouse at Thompson Park is what voters are talking about.

Councilman Horbacz was criticized for voting in August to dip into the fund balance to pay $2.9 million of the project. He and other council members previously pledged not to spend more than $2.4 million, the amount bonded for the project.

The councilman calls the project “a symbol” of the city not having a plan for what to do when the old 94-year-old pool closed in 2013 and for “the council’s inaction” to get it done.

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Watertown City Councilman Cody J. Horbacz speaks during an editorial board meeting at the Watertown Daily Times office on Oct. 9. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

During the past two election cycles, voters supported replacing the old pool, but city staff purposely stalled the project, Councilman Horbacz said. He claims it then caused its cost to increase and subsequently force him and council members Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson to use the fund balance to help pay for it, he said.

Opponents on council “beat the project to death,” he said.

While voters were for the project in the past, Mrs. Crossman said they supported candidates in the primary who oppose moving forward with the pool. Public support has decreased while its cost has increased, she said.

She believes using the city’s reserve account to pay for it was a mistake. She noted that council members already approved a $15,000 to $20,000 change order for the pool project to make needed restrooms accessible to the public. It will be the first of many other change orders, Mrs. Crossman predicted.

Mr. Smith said voters overwhelmingly oppose the project because they see it as “a waste of money” since the city already has two pools that it must maintain.

Instead of using funding for the pool, he would help the financially struggling New York State Zoo at Thompson Park and he supports building an amphitheater at the park.

Council members have talked about making a concert venue at the park a priority. They are just starting to talk with zoo officials about the facility’s needs going into the future, Councilman Horbacz said.

If Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo and candidate Jesse C.P. Roshia are elected in November, he still hopes to stop the project, even though construction crews have started site preparation this past week at the site. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Friday.

“To try to stop it, it would circumvent democracy,” Councilman Horbacz said.

But the mayoral candidates continue to express concerns about the city losing a hydroelectric contract with National Grid in 2030. The agreement produces millions of dollars in revenues every year.

They say that the city needs to start working on a plan now.

Councilman Horbacz and Ms. Crossman urge the city to put together a panel of experts to study the issue and come up with a plan to resolve the issue. Mr. Olney suggests hiring a consultant to sort out the issue.

“We need to meet with some experts to see what’s the best decision for the city,” Mrs. Crossman said, adding maybe the city could get a state grant through one of its green programs.

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Allison I. Crossman speaks during an editorial board meeting at the Watertown Daily Times office on Oct. 1. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

If the city doesn’t do something about it, property taxes would increase by 65 percent in 2030, Mr. Smith said.

“You’re going to see a lot of people moving out of the city” if you don’t do something, he said, adding he believes that hydro is a city asset and it can create jobs.

To offset the millions of dollars in losses, on Day One of his administration he would start setting aside anything over $4 million in hydro revenues that the city receives from the power giant.

Mr. Smith also hopes to prevent the city from spending $5 million to create a second courtroom in City Hall, again contending it’s a waste of money.

He thinks the city should ignore the state’s requirement of having courtrooms for each of the city’s two city court judges. He contended the one courtroom for the two judges is efficient and works well.

But Mrs. Crossman and Councilman Horbacz said it’s a fight not worth having, although they agree it’s an unfunded mandate.

The councilman said too much is at stake, with the state threatening to withhold state aid if the city fails to move forward with the second courtroom.

“It’s something we have to do,” Mrs. Crossman said. “I’m not willing to lose funding for it.”

If the city withholds state aid, the city should react by evicting the court administration, Mr. Smith said.

Councilman Horbacz questions Mr. Smith’s judgment for wanting to take such a drastic action.

With a five-year contract dispute winding down, they agreed that the city and the firefighters’ union should get back to the negotiating table.

“I’d sit down with the city manager and give him direction,” Mr. Smith said.

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Jeffrey M. Smith speaks during an editorial board meeting at the Watertown Daily Times office on Oct. 2. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

When he was hired, council members directed City Manager Rick Finn to work on improving the relationship with the fire department, Councilman Horbacz said.

To help with that, he said it was his idea to promote four of the eight captains, who were demoted in 2015. The demotions caused the already contentious contract battle to become more combative.

“It was an olive branch,” he said.

Mrs. Crossman has criticized the city for its handling of some encroachment issues involving the Watertown Golf Club at Thompson Park, accusing the city of not being “transparent.”

Earlier this year, P.J. Simao, who owns Ives Hill Country Club, learned that the Watertown Golf Club was encroaching on city-owned parkland for years. As a result, the city set a deadline for the golf club’s owner, Michael E. Lundy, to correct the encroachment issues, first by July 31 and then by Sept. 30.

The city should “hold him accountable,” Councilman Horbacz said.

The issue has become a political hot potato, with Mr. Simao blaming the city for allowing Mr. Lundy to not get the work done as he had promised.

Since the issue surfaced last spring, Mr. Simao has expressed displeasure with how the city has handled it, He also attacked both Councilman Horbacz and Mr. Smith for their stances. Mr. Simao put up a billboard questioning Mr. Smith’s history with the golf course in the park.

Councilman Horbacz also has been the subject of Mr. Simao’s berating.

“I’m not his puppet,” the councilman said. “I don’t take direction from him.”

Mr. Smith said that voters are not bringing up the issue with him. No one also questioned the lease with the former golf club owners when he was a member of council a dozen years ago, he said.

Mrs. Crossman also said the golf club has received a sweetheart deal for years to lease nine of the 18 holes from the city.

She has called for the ouster of City Attorney Robert J. Slye for his part in “Golf Gate,” questioning whether he has too much power over council members.

Mrs. Crossman proposes that the city establish a corporate attorney office that would handle legal matters for the city, rather than Mr. Slye’s law firm representing the city.

She believes it would cost about the same amount of money to hire a corporate attorney and a staff. Councilman Horbacz likes the idea.

The three major mayoral candidates also disagree on a plan for two businessmen buying the Strauss Walkway and turning it into outdoor seating for a new downtown restaurant.

Mrs. Crossman suggests leasing the city-owned alleyway, so that the city retains control over the property. Her opponents support selling it, saying they like the private investment it would generate downtown.

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Cliff G. Olney III speaks during an editorial board meeting at the Watertown Daily Times office on Oct. 8. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

Mr. Olney remains in the race as a write-in candidate, despite getting pressure for him to get out.

He compares it to not wanting to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and then supporting Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

He insisted that he won’t get out of the race.

“I don’t see anyone taking on the tough issues,” he said.

Using mainly social media, he’s expressed his views on Golf Gate, hydropower and the new pool.

But some local political insiders think that Mr. Olney will hurt Councilman Horbacz’s chances of winning the race. They don’t see Mr. Olney taking votes from Mr. Smith, but attracting voters who would otherwise support the councilman, they said.

Councilman Horbacz said he doesn’t understand why Mr. Olney is remaining in the race when he has no chance of winning and will only act as a spoiler.

“He’s not on the ballot,” Councilman Horbacz said.

Political insiders agree it’s a three-candidate race that might be tightening in the waning weeks of the campaign.

Mr. Smith is touting his experience as a former councilman. While she has never run for political office before, Mrs. Crossman thinks she’s “gaining steam” in the race.

Councilman Horbacz says the city has accomplished a lot during his stint on council.

The mayoral candidates are seeking four-year terms in the nonpartisan race.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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