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Public needs to stay informed on contracts awarded to campaign donors

One contributor to Mayor Michael Villa’s 2015 campaign has already been awarded a city contract, another is on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting.

According to the NY State Board of Elections website, the Roemer, Wallens, Gold, and Mineaux LLP law firm of Albany, NY was a contributor to Villa’s campaign. The common council voted unanimously at it’s meeting on January 1 to award the firm a three year, $48,000 per year contract to handle the city’s labor relations and code enforcement cases.

Alderman Jim Martuscello said Friday that he has submitted a resolution to appear on Tuesday’s agenda which would award a $10,000 contract to the Wladis Law Firm of Syracuse for consulting services. The firm’s website lists Mark N. Wladis as its founder. According to NY State Board of Elections, Wladis was also a contributor to Villa’s campaign.

I believe it’s vitally important that the public, as well as all elected officials, keep track of campaign contributions in order to ensure that our tax money is going to the companies that can deliver the best service at the best price. There is a reason that NY State requires contributions to be disclosed and makes the information available to the public.

Now just because a company, or an official at a company, contributes to a campaign, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should not be considered. Campaign contributions are a fact of life, and I don’t fault either these two firms for contributing or Villa for accepting. However, if no other proposals or options are looked at, how do we know a proposal is competitive?

In the issue of Wladis Law Firm, both Controller Matt Agresta and Alderman Ed Russo told me that they were not aware of any other firms considered, and they were not aware that the founder was a contributor.

When I asked Martuscello if he knew Wladis was a contributor, I was surprised when he responded “it’s not important.”

While he also acknowledged that no other firm was considered, he defended his support for the resolution and said that after meeting personally with the Wladis Law Firm, he was convinced they were the right ones for the job. He asserted that he would not be influenced by anyone with money.

Besides the importance of considering at least one alternative in for any substantial contract, I believe it’s also important for elected officials to disclose any connections to companies being discussed. The city’s code of ethics, in chapter 23-3 section E states:

To the extent that he knows thereof, a member of the Common Council and any officer or employee of the City of Amsterdam, whether paid or unpaid, who participates in the discussion, or gives official opinion to the Common Council on any legislation before the Common Council, shall publicly disclose on the official record the nature and extent of any direct or indirect financial or other private interest he has in such legislation.

In regards to the hiring of Roemer, Wallens, Gold, and Mineaux LLP , Alderman Chad Majewski responded to me via email and wrote, “The law firm of Roemer, Wallens, Gold & Mineaux currently represents the county and at one time the City of Amsterdam. We were hoping to get an extension of the great services and negotiations they provided to the city at one time. I was unaware that they were a campaign contributor and that was not a factor in us agreeing with the mayor to enter into a contract with them.”

Martuscello also said he was unaware that RWGM LLP was a contributor. During the first council meeting of the year when the contract for RWGM LLP was voted on, I did not hear any disclosure of the contribution at any time during the meeting. So it looks to me that in the cases of both firms, the council was generally unaware of the connections to Villa’s campaign, and did not consider any alternatives.

I also reached out to Villa, as well as council members Rodney Wojnar and Paul Ochal for comment on Monday, but they have yet to respond.

I believe it is vitally important we keep our elected officials accountable for spending our tax money wisely. We should not be complacent or apologetic over what appears to me to be a fast track approval process to hire campaign donors. It may very well turn out that both these firms are the best for the job, and that would be fine by me. But how do we know that without a transparent process?

In order to maintain public trust, I believe both the mayor and common council need to do better. We need up-front and full disclosure of any financial connections to companies or people being considered for contracts during public discussions, and we need to see that some attempt was made to shop for competing proposals. The mayor and council need to keep each other accountable to do this, and we the public need to stay informed and keep them accountable as well.

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About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.
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