By JIM KEVLIN • for allotsego.com
ONEONTA – After barring public comment before a packed house, a split Common Council this evening voted, 5-2, with one abstention, to suspend City Manager Martin Murphy, who has served as City Hall’s top executive for 10 months.
Three Council members, Bob Brzozowski, Chip Holmes and David Rissberger, argued that due process had been circumvented and Murphy was the victim of emotions gone out of control.
Meanwhile, a four-vote bloc – Council members Mike Lynch, Larry Malone, Maureen Hennessy and Madolyn O. Palmer – sat stolidly, saying nothing. Acting Mayor Russ Southard joined the four in voting for the suspension.
It was Rissberger who asbstained, saying later he wasn’t sure of the merits of the case, but was concerned that due process – goal setting, then measuring Murphy’s progress to goal – wasn’t applied.
Council members then voted, unanimously, to give Murphy three months severance pay – $27,500; Lynch had to figure out the amount on a calculator – as long as he agreed to resign quietly. Murphy has 15 days to ask for a public hearing; after the hearing, Council could then vote on his dismissal.
The special meeting was called to order shortly after 6:30. After the gathering recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Lynch quickly introduced his resolution.
When citizen Lori Zimniewicz, a member of the Charter Commission that created the city manager position, asked to be allowed to speak, Mayor Southard said there would be no public comment period. Anyone who wanted to say anything should attend Tuesday’s Council meeting and comment then, he said.
City Attorney David Merzig then ruled that, since Lynch’s resolution had been introduced, it had to be discussed and voted on, or withdrawn, before anything else could come before the Council. A vote to withdraw the motion so the public could comment failed on a tie – Lynch, Malone, Hennessy and Palmer voted against public comment; Southard, Brzozowski, Holmes and Rissberger voted for it.
Rissberger then read a statement saying that, while he didn’t support 100 percent of Murphy’s actions, the Council failed to set goals for him and failed to follow the provisions of the charter in other ways. When Murphy last came under fire in the spring, the Council agreed to do a “360 review” of the city manager, then never did before the renewed push for suspension.
“This vote has been based purely on emotion with no discussion of behavioral complaints with Martin or any history of a corrective plan put in place over the last eight months,” he concluded. “Like any city employee, he deserves the opportunity to defend himself and receive a chance to improve his performance and we failed to provide either.”
Holmes said, “It costs a boat full of money to recruit them and then to fire them a few months later.” He was referring, not just to Murphy, but to the city’s first manager, Mike Long, who was forced out in May 2014 after 20 months on the job.
Brzozowski decried “chewing up and spitting out another city manager.” When the 5-2-1 vote was taken, he declared what had happened “a show trial” and walked out of the meeting.
After the vote on the second motion, Southard reported he was leaving on vacation, and moved to appoint Hennessy as acting mayor in his absence. Holmes questioned where Council was authorized to appoint an “acting, acting mayor.” (Southard was appointed acting mayor when Mayor Dick Miller died last October.)
In the end, Council voted to withdraw the “acting mayor” designation from Southard when he is out of town, give it to Hennessy in his absence, then return him to acting mayor on his return.
When the meeting was over, mayor-apparent Gary Herzig, who is running unopposed in the November elections, said, “I’m disappointed. It was an emotional decision. It should have been an objective decision.
“That being said,” he continued, “it’s time to look forward. We have a strong slate of candidates. We have capable people in City Hall. Oneonta is going to be in good hands.”