Council discusses future of counsel’s assistant position

Members of the Amsterdam Common Council discussed several options to continue funding Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis’ administrative assistant at a personnel committee meeting held Wednesday afternoon. DeCusatis announced in January that the current assistant would be leaving to work elsewhere. Alderman Ron Barone said he wants to see the position reduced from a full-time position to a part-time position. Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler advocated for eliminating the position and instead providing DeCusatis with a $10,000 additional stipend to hire his own assistant who could do work for either his private business or city business. Mayor Ann Thane and Alderwoman Valerie Beekman spoke in favor of leaving the assistant’s position as full-time.

DeCusatis, who operates his own private practice as well as serving as corporation counsel, currently works primarily at his own office. DeCusatis’ assistant also had his office at his private business’ location until recently when the assistant’s office was moved to City Hall at the request of the council. The assistant’s duties are currently split between working for DeCusatis and Employee Relations Director Bob Reidy.

In regards to reducing the position to part-time, Hatzenbuhler pointed out that under the previous mayor’s administration, the corporation counsel utilized a secretary from the codes department.

Thane responded, “I took office in 2008. And I came into the building, and in the AIDA office, that was where corporation counsel had been…and when I went into that office, there was a 12 inch pile of work that had not been processed. And it went from one end of that table all the way to the other. And it took a year and a half. We had outstanding [Public Employee Safety and Health ] violations on that table. There were contracts. We had to go to court for what was left on that table. It did not work. It did not work then and it won’t work now.”

“We want an efficient and effective government,” said Thane, “And what you are proposing just really destroys your legal department. Why would you do such a thing? I just don’t get it.”

“See I’m not going to destroy it. I’m going to give him a quarter and a quarter,” said Barone referring to his proposal to split a part-time position between DeCusatis and Reidy.

“Which is not enough Ron,” said Thane.

“Make due with what I give you. If it goes my way that’s what you’re going to work with,” said Barone.

“But how does that serve the city?” asked Thane.

“Well guess what, we’ll struggle with it,” said Barone.

“No, truly, how does it serve the city?” asked Thane.

“Well, we’ll have to figure that out as we go along,” said Barone.

Later, Thane described the additional workload the office of the corporation counsel deals with in comparison to past administrations.

“In the past we’ve had a deputy corporation counsel, and a secretary, and at one point I think we had two secretaries and a deputy, and at the time we were outsourcing the labor negotiations. Now we have labor negotiations in-house. We have [DeCusatis] doing all of our contracts, he’s doing all of our PESH work, all of our day-to-day requests for information or analysis. And yet we are saying this lawyer should spend time processing paperwork and filing the paperwork for the city, he should do all of the work setting up all of the deeds instead of having a staff person do that. You’re saying ‘I’m not getting enough work out of you, so now I’m going to cut you.’ And it just defies reason.”

“Especially when you look at the county, which is just hiring a lawyer for their business and they’re paying $80,000 and supplying support staff and all of the labor negotiations are farmed out. What are we doing? We’re not serving this business. You are undercutting government.”

During the meeting, Hatzenbuhler said to DeCusatis, “It’s not the city’s position to be funding a private secretary for your office, and I’m staying with that position.”

Beekman spoke in favor keeping the position full-time. She challenged Hatzenbuhler’s claim and said, “When you say ‘his private work’, you better have something to back that up, because that’s an accusation that you better be able to prove.”

Hatzenbuhler later said, “It is not the city’s responsibility to provide [DeCusatis] with his staff for his practice. Normal attorney’s have assistants. He can hire whoever he wants and $10,000 from the city will offset that expense.”

Beekman responded, “His staff at his office is one thing, Diane, this is at the city. Let’s clarify, I need clarification. This is city work he is doing. So why can’t we give him a secretary? I don’t get this. What is the issue? If you were doing the job what would you want?”

“I would have a staff in place,” said Hatzenbuhler

“Thank you,” said Beekman

“And my own staff at my own business. He has his staff at his business,” said Hatzenbuhler.

“We put him right here, we put him right upstairs,” said Beekman, referring to the recent move of the assistant’s office to City Hall at the request of the council.

“We don’t need him upstairs, we don’t know what the heck he’s doing,” said Hatzenbuhler.

“No, we put him upstairs so you would know what they were doing,” said Beekman.

“Well that’s OK, that’s not an issue,” said Hatzenbuhler and repeated her assertion that the city should not pay for an assistant to DeCusatis’ private practice.

After the meeting, when asked if his assistant had ever done work for his private business, DeCusatis replied “no.”

DeCusatis also said to the council during the meeting, “It’s up to you to provide reasonable staff for the functions of the city attorney.”

DeCusatis also expressed concern about the idea of a stipend, as to whether the council would continue to offer the stipend year after year, and whether that would provide job security for an employee that he hired himself. Barone said he was in favor of continuing the stipend.

At the end of the meeting, Barone said he didn’t have a problem with the stipend idea. He asked council members if they would be in favor of a $7500 stipend to DeCusatis and a $7500 stipend to Reidy, given the estimated $15,000 left in the budget line for the assistant’s position in the current fiscal year. The majority of members voiced their agreement with the proposal.

Tim Becker

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