OGDENSBURG — Several Ogdensburg residents have let the City Council know that they are not happy with some of City Manager Stephen P. Jellie’s recent Facebook posts, calling them forms of bullying and political in nature.
At a council meeting on Oct. 12, four residents voiced their displeasure with Mr. Jellie’s Facebook posts of late.
One post found on the “Town Hall for Ogdensburg New York” page that was uploaded at 2:08 p.m. on Oct. 11, was written by Mr. Jellie and titled “Ogdensburg Public Safety.” Mr. Jellie posed a question to the three councilors up for election, Daniel E. Skamperle, Michael B. Powers and Nichole L. Kennedy, who make up what is being referred to as the “minority” of council. The “majority” consists of Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly, Deputy Mayor John A. Rishe and councilors Steven M. Fisher and William B. Dillabough.
Mr. Jellie’s post reads in part:
“The question for current minority councilors, Dan Skamperle, Mike Powers and Nichole Kennedy is how does the city pay for the promises of increased staffing they continue to verbalize support for? All three know how tight the city budget was last year and how tight it will be again this year. How does the city pay for the 28 Police Officers and 24 Firefighters you proclaim are what is most efficient and you want funded. What will you cut or do without in order to pay for those increases. You can’t sit on city council and throw out wants like you’re part of the general public, you actually have to figure out how to pay for things you support and state your intentions clearly. Paying lip service to unions won’t last long if you don’t actually have a plan. My guess is they know you’re about to come up empty again unless you show up with a plan, or are you really just giving these dedicated servants and their families hollow words. Those contracts you ratified are hollow and you know it.”
RESIDENTS VOICE DISPLEASURE
Michael Tooley spoke during the Oct. 12 meeting and said that council, on or about Dec. 15, will be giving the city manager an annual performance evaluation. Searching for criteria by which a city manager would be evaluated, he came across the International City/County Management Association established in 1924. ICMA members are bound by a rigid and strongly enforced code of ethics.
“The core dictate of the body of the code reads as follows: ‘to integrity; public service; seek no favor; exemplary conduct in both personal and professional matters; respect the role and responsibilities of elected officials; exercise the independence to do what is right; political neutrality; serve the public equitably and governing body members equally; keep the community informed about local government matters; and support and lead our employees,’” Mr. Tooley said.
After reading the ICMA code of ethics, Mr. Tooley suggested to city council that there might be aspects that merit a judgment of “areas in need of improvement” if they used it to evaluate the city manager’s job performance.
“Specifically, I think the sections that read, ‘political neutrality,’ and ‘serve the public equitably and governing body members equally,’ are such ethical areas in need of improvement,” Mr. Tooley said, adding that the city manager often makes comments referencing “majority” and “minority” city council and often praises Mayor Skelly in “what I believe are political opinions.”
“In social media and in public statements, the city manager often describes citizens who offer opinions that differ from his as ‘disruptors.’ In my opinion, by making such statements, Mr. Jellie acts as an eighth city councilor, and not an apolitical city manager,” Mr. Tooley said. “I think city administration and our elected officials should welcome citizen input on important city issues, even when this input runs contrary to their individual opinions on the issue. There is no need to identify as ‘disruptors’ citizens offering views on city matters. A professional administrator, or a responsible elected official, should take the time to listen to any citizen input, thank the citizen for offering it, and if there is disagreement, take the time to explain why. Sadly, this has not been the treatment given to some citizens who either have spoken publicly to City Council or offered comment in social media.”
Mr. Tooley noted that the city paid for the ICMA dues for former City Manager Sarah Purdy and that there is no such provision in Mr. Jellie’s contract. He advocated for the city to pay for his membership so he could receive any in-service education and “help Mr. Jellie improve ethical areas in need of improvement.”
“Ultimately this is an issue that falls on City Council to deal with, and I will give you credit or hold you accountable depending on any change in conduct by the city manager in city affairs,” Mr. Tooley concluded.
Valerie S. Sovie said she is concerned about social media posts that have characterized various citizens as “government disruptors.” Many of those who have been labeled as such are longtime residents of Ogdensburg and have contributed in several ways to the community, she said.
She asked council to schedule a meeting to review the city’s social media and internet policies, adding that “I think there are definitely some points of concern in terms of officials who should be remaining impartial in this process who don’t seem to be able to do so.”
“It has become very apparent that political opinions in our city vary widely and are an emotional topic. Many spur-of-the-moment responses in discussions on social media have resulted in poor conduct from both sides,” Ms. Sovie said. “People say things in the heat of the moment that they may later regret, or that could have been phrased in a much better way. The entire process of conducting city business on social media is hurting our community. I believe that city officials and this council as a whole must be held to a higher standard and must take action to remedy this problem.”
Douglas W. Loffler, a former city councilor, also spoke of mean-spirited attacks on Facebook that are creating a further divide in the city.
“Facebook has become this administration’s chosen political battleground this election season,” Mr. Loffler said. “As with most things social-media driven, the good-spirited nature of debate this time of year brings, has taken a drastic turn for the worse, a turn that has quickly devolved into mean-spirited personal attacks, further dividing our already divided city.”
Although Mr. Loffler didn’t identify Mr. Jellie by name, referring to him only as a “highly paid employee,” he did say that the employee was recently asked for expenditures on a project by councilors and it was not completed. Mr. Loffler alluded that the employee could have performed the task if he wasn’t on Facebook.
“There are hours of time stamped posts and comments from this employee all over Facebook the week leading up to the meeting,” Mr. Loffler said. “Has arguing and demeaning citizens on social media really taken precedence over a direct order from supervisors? Or does this constitute insubordination?”
Fellow resident Margaret A. Haggerty, labeled by Mr. Jellie as a “disruptor,” said that she emailed every member of council regarding what she called Mr. Jellie’s bullying behavior. Only Mr. Powers, Mr. Skamperle and Ms. Kennedy replied to her, she stated.
“I am left to believe that if the matter isn’t addressed tonight, that the rest of you are complicit in the bullying behavior that is displayed toward your constituents and electorate,” Ms. Haggerty said. “Presently I’m speaking for myself. Bullying and cyberbullying are taking place from the pulpit. It continues, unchecked, in spite of me writing to the bosses of the bully and hearing, seeing nothing to address it.”
She said that bullying and cyberbullying can cause decreased self esteem, emotional distress, physical symptoms, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and actions.
“Unchecked, this is the legacy this administration is leaving to the city,” she said.
She also told council that she has filed a formal complaint with the New York State Public Integrity Bureau.
“I do find it sad that I had to go out of this council because nothing was done within it,” Ms. Haggerty said.
She ultimately called for the immediate termination of the city manager before being cut off by Mayor Skelly.
CITY MANAGER RESPONDS TO COMPLAINTS
In response to Ms. Haggerty’s complaint, Mr. Jellie said in a prepared statement that the city has no direct knowledge of content or nature of the complaint. He also said he will not change his ways.
“I do not intend to resign or discontinue communicating directly with the Ogdensburg community on FaceBook or any other social media,” Mr. Jellie said.
He said that he would not be deterred, intimidated or distracted from continuing the progress being made to revive the city and added that Mayor Skelly has called on all citizens to join the “progressive efforts of ensuring the survival of the city, while working equally as hard for the revival of the city.”
“It would be most helpful if Mrs. Haggerty and her close allies join that movement instead of always finding fault with the decisive actions taken by the Majority of City Council,” Mr. Jellie said.
After the council meeting, Mr. Jellie submitted a lengthy post to the “Town Hall for Ogdensburg New York” Facebook page.
Mr. Jellie’s 722-word post, made at 11:11 p.m. Oct. 12, reads in part:
“At this evenings city council meeting four people expressed displeasure with my participation and use of social media. I respectfully disagree with all and welcome the opportunity to speak directly with two of the four that I have not previously spoken directly to in person. Two of the individuals attack, stalk and attempt to invade my personal privacy and I won’t make any effort to communicate with either. I won’t apologize and I won’t stop communicating with the people of the City of Ogdensburg that continually ask and thank me for the hard work and firm stance I take with issues. Social media is a contemporary platform for communicating that does require the approval or filter of others and it is very safe from spreading COVID. I use it where I see it beneficial. I agree, some discussions become counterproductive but, I try to convey a meaningful message.”
He said in the post that he will not “rise above it” or “act professionally” when he is “provoked, attacked, stalked or my family contacted.”
“I do not ever treat people disrespectfully but I will not tolerate bad actors and I am not going to tolerate people that attempt to bully and intimidate and then retreat to being victims when they get called out,” he wrote.
He admitted that he operates differently from other city managers but said that the city needs different acting leaders.
“I am not and will not inject myself in the fall city council elections, but I have been clear — no one is going to use public safety as a campaign motivator by making false claims, injecting fear or attempting to create panic,” he wrote.
Mr. Jellie referenced Councilor Skamperle, saying he has made claims about fire outcomes in the city related to fire personnel cuts.
“I will continue to call out these types of matters as they are not open game just because it’s election season,” Mr. Jellie wrote. “I will also be challenging any city councilor that is making staffing promises to submit a plan for how the city will pay for it. Anything short of that is just talk for the sake of talking.”
He also defined who he labels as local government “disruptors.”
“It is anyone that acts maliciously and intentionally attempts to disrupt the operations of city government. It is people that block doors so local officials cannot gain entry. It is people that show up at fires and intentionally heckle and interrupt officials from doing their jobs. It is people that create hours upon hours of work for staff just because they want to demonstrate they can. It is people that follow, stalk and engage government officials from conducting personal business. It is people that invade every conversation on social media by attacking any post that is positive toward the city administration,” he wrote.
Mr. Jellie concluded by writing he will not resign.
“I will not give up. I will not be intimidated by false accusations and bully turned to victim tactics,” he wrote. “The facts are the fact and I am sticking to them.”