WATERTOWN — Two City Council members are accusing Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith of failing to share pertinent information about a funding request that was submitted by Hospice of Jefferson County for a planned expansion project.
Council members Leonard G. Spaziani and Lisa A. Ruggiero are criticizing Mayor Smith for how he handled the $445,000 funding request, accusing him of not being transparent.
They said they never saw documents that hospice officials had provided for the $445,000 request in Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund money to enhance its ventilation system as part of a $2.37 million four-bed expansion of the organization’s Gotham Street facility.
In June, the mayor called council members to see if they supported the funding for the project. He then notified City Manager Kenneth A. Mix that he conducted an informal poll indicating that four council members opposed allocating the funding.
But Councilman Spaziani balked that the funding request was never discussed publicly until Monday night when he introduced a resolution asking for support for the funding. Instead, the mayor kept information about the project from council members, he said.
“We are a council (and) city manager government, not strong mayor,” Mr. Spaziani said. “I was highly upset. As far as I’m concerned, it should have been up for discussion and an up and down vote. We never saw the documents. All he did was call it and that it was it. The name of the game is transparency.”
In addition, the way the mayor handled the informal poll over the phone violated the state’s Open Meeting Law, said Kristin O’Neill, counsel for the state’s Committee on Open Government.
All votes must be taken during an open meeting, she said.
The two council members said they only learned more about the ventilation project after hospice Executive Director Diana K. Woodhouse sent out an email asking council members to reconsider the funding request after the organization reduced the size of the project from eight rooms to four.
In a July 8 email, Ms. Woodhouse advised council members that the enhanced ventilation system complies with the state’s coronavirus recovery fund program because it would protect staff, patients and families from the spread of the virus.
Ventilation improvements are specifically cited as an example of an eligible use under the program established by the American Rescue Plan, she wrote.
But none of that information was provided to the two council members, they said. The mayor only told them how much funding that hospice requested.
They decided to support the funding after attending a presentation by hospice officials on July 13.
Councilwoman Ruggiero said the mayor and Mr. Mix met with hospice officials and former Mayor T. Urling Walker about the project on May 7 but did not tell them about it. At that May 7 meeting, the mayor instructed hospice officials to submit a written request for the funding, which the organization did on May 28, but it was not provided to two council members.
She also pointed out that the city is willing to spend $1 million in soft costs for a proposed $8.5 million amphitheater in Thompson Park, calling it “a want,” while the hospice project is “a community need.”
On Monday night, council members tabled the funding request after a lengthy discussion about whether the city should fund outside organizations with the $22,265,728 in American Rescue Plan money that the city received earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Ms. Woodhouse said she and her organization want to stay out of the fray. They are only concerned about getting a project completed that’s needed for the community.
“I was a little disappointed at the bickering,” she said. “It’s not about what the mayor did or did not do. We just see a need.”
With a goal to save taxpayer money, Mayor Smith and council members Sarah V. Compo Pierce and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson would like to use the $22 million only for city governmental projects and not provide any money to outside organizations for their projects. The city has more than enough projects that could use the $22 million, the mayor said.
Mayor Smith said the Watertown Family YMCA and the Jefferson County Historical Society also requested American Rescue Plan money, but the two council members were adamant about not providing money to the Y.
“We don’t want to say one gets funding and one doesn’t,” he said, adding organizations need to be treated equally.
He also argued it would not be right for the city to fund the request without establishing “standards” and “a process” to distribute the American Rescue Plan money.
Councilwoman Compo Pierce opposed the hospice funding, stressing that other organizations should have an equal chance to ask for some of the $22 million for their projects.
She provided a list of outside organizations that also would be deserving of the city’s allocation of American Rescue Plan funding.
She also said she felt “rushed” in having to make a decision on the hospice project Monday night.
But Kathy L. Arendt, the hospice’s director of marketing and community relations who also attended that May 7 meeting with the mayor and Mr. Mix, said hospice officials were surprised that it took so long for council to finally discuss the project at a meeting.
Mayor Smith also denied he violated the state Open Meetings Law, citing he spoke to council members one at a time when he took his informal poll.
He also disagreed that he kept council members in the dark, saying that he talked to each council member to get their input and then copied them in a June 14 email to Mr. Mix about council deciding not to move on the fund request.
He took exception to the comments about overstepping his authority as mayor, adding that he chaired a charter commission study that ruled out the strong mayor form of government.
The hospice organization has been working on the expansion for a number of years and has whittled down its cost from $3.2 million to $2.37 million. The project is needed because the facility has a waiting list to help people and it would help a growing need for the local medical community.
Hospice officials hope to break ground on the project early next spring.