Stefanik evades accountability

Jerry Moore

If he isn’t elected mayor in November, perhaps Cody Horbacz could become the official revisionist historian for the city of Watertown.

He isn’t seeking re-election as a councilman this year, so he’ll have some additional time on his hands if he leaves elective office. Hey, there could even be a modest stipend in it for him!

And why not? Horbacz has already begun altering the facts about certain events, and it makes no sense for him to give away his services for free.

After debating this issue for the past four years, Horbacz along with council members Lisa Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson voted Monday to pay for a new pool and bathhouse by using $2.9 million from the fund balance. They failed to receive a fourth vote needed to amend a bond issue to cover the entire amount.

Recently, Horbacz has busied himself with bending the truth about the City Council’s plan to reopen the pool at Thompson Park. As a guest Tuesday on former Mayor Jeffrey Graham’s radio program on WATN-AM 1240, he delivered his biggest whopper to date:

“Somebody said last night … that nobody expects politicians to keep their word, which is kind of really sad,” Horbacz said. “What kind of country do we live in? No, no, no. Politicians should keep their word; we did.”

Contrary to Horbacz’s claim, they didn’t keep their word. Early last year, the council approved a bond issue of $2.4 million for the combined project. And since then, these three council members have repeatedly pledged not to approve any bids that exceeded that amount.

Discarding warnings by staffers about the potential excessive costs of the plan, the council members convinced themselves they could keep the pool/bathhouse on budget. And not only did they want to look like heroes for delivering this gift to constituents, they felt the need to appear fiscally responsible at the same time.

And they honestly tried to keep the proposal within the budget they set. They balked at its rising costs and more than once requested it be reconfigured to reduce the price tag.

But it’s easy for public officials to make promises when they believe they’ll never have to live up to them. When Horbacz, Ruggiero and Henry-Wilkinson had to face the reality that the pool/bathhouse would exceed the $2.4 million, their obsession to approve the project any way possible overwhelmed their commitment to maintain a self-imposed limit on expenses.

In addition to fudging the facts about keeping his word, Horbacz has been distorting Mayor Joe Butler’s record on the pool issue. During his interview with Graham, Horbacz said Butler began changing his position in 2016.

When Butler ran against Graham for mayor in 2015, he said he supported reopening the pool. But he wanted to use outside money rather than city funds to pay for the project.

Butler declared this throughout his campaign four years ago, and he’s maintained the same stance ever since. So it’s not surprising that he refused to support plans to bond for the pool/bathhouse or pay for the project upfront from the fund balance. Horbacz’s suggestion that Butler altered his views after he was elected mayor is patently false.

The mandate that Horbacz has claimed to push through this proposal is based on a dubious assertion. He said that he ran and was elected to the City Council on this issue in 2015, so this is what the people want — end of story!

While speaking with Graham, Horbacz called the pool/bathhouse project a “wedge issue” in 2015. But this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

There is no doubt that many people called for the pool to be reopened. Built more than 90 years ago, it was a cherished asset in Thompson Park.

However, the phrase “wedge issue” implies contrasting positions. So for Horbacz to declare that this helped him get elected, at least one of his rivals for the City Council seat would have needed to take an opposing view.

The other five candidates that year were Todd DeMar, Henry-Wilkinson, Cliff Olney, Douglas Osborne and Mark Walczyk. All of them joined Horbacz in criticizing the council for not repairing and reopening the pool.

So there’s no way to tell how strong or weak the support for this idea was among residents based merely on Horbacz’s election.

There was no anti-pool candidate, so voters didn’t have any other choice but to select someone who favored moving ahead with a proposal to reopen it.

Looking at the mayoral race in 2015, though, provides some deeper insight. Butler was on record as wanting to reopen the pool by using outside money. Councilman Stephen Jennings also ran for mayor and, at that point, preferred that the council undertake the project. Of course, Graham took his usual wishy-washy, non-committal stance of “The council needs to make a decision one way or the other.”

In the primary, Jennings failed to advance to the general election. So the mayoral candidate who was closest to Horbacz’s position on the pool/bathhouse plan was rejected by voters when they had a choice of viewpoints that year!

Horbacz is correct that both Ruggiero and Henry-Wilkinson won their council seats in 2017 while advocating for the pool/bathhouse project against incumbents who opposed it. Citing cost concerns, both Jennings and Teresa Macaluso changed their minds in 2016 about the plan. They were shown the door.

This year’s primary, however, offers a different picture. Horbacz ran for mayor against Jeff Smith, Allison Crossman and Olney.

Smith opposes reopening the pool, and Crossman said she wouldn’t approve it if it ran over-budget. Horbacz and Olney both support the plan.

Smith won first place while Horbacz and Crossman tied for second; they’ll all advance to the general election. Olney wound up in last place although he’s mounted a write-in campaign.

In the City Council primary, Councilwoman Sarah Compo won first place followed by Jesse Roshia, Robert Schorr and Patrick Hickey. Compo has opposed the pool/bathhouse project because of its costs, and Roshia and Schorr said the money should be used for infrastructure rather than the pool/bathhouse.

The pool was clearly a wedge issue this year with anti-pool candidates dominating both races. This mandate that Horbacz claims to divine from “the people” is an illusion. Voters have sent very mixed messages over the past few election cycles.

No concrete evidence has ever been presented demonstrating that residents by and large favor this project. The only credible polling done comes from the 2017 Survey of the Community conducted by Jefferson Community College.

When presented with separate options for the project, 60 percent of respondents said they favored refurbishing the pool and bathhouse for no more than $1.5 million while 44 percent of respondents said they would support building a new pool and bathhouse for up to $3 million.

From what little we can ascertain about how residents wish to proceed, it’s evident that most are looking for something less expensive than what we’re going to get.

It strikes me that Horbacz is responding not so much to voters as he is to his own hubris. Why would he feel the need to twist the truth if this weren’t the case?

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment

rdsouth

In all of his election bids Horbacz has come across as passionately interested in improvements like the pool. He may be remembering it as what he ran on, because that's what he cared about, and may not really be aware that others, despite also adding it to their position list, were less passionate and not "running on it."

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