By Joe Mahoney
---- — Ruling that the Otsego County Board of Representatives violated the Public Officers Law when it held a secret meeting dealing with the Otsego Manor, a state judge has voided the vote taken after that session to sell the nursing home to the highest bidder.
The decision, handed down by Acting Otsego County State Supreme Court Justice Donald Cerio, means that the board will have to again address the controversial proposal to privatize the 174-bed nursing home.
The board’s action that was nullified was its Sept. 5 vote in support of a resolution that argued the Manor has become financially unsustainable for the county and authorized its sale. Since then, more than 1,800 people have signed a petition, organized by Manor volunteer Maureen Culbert of Springfield, urging that the Manor remain a publicly operated nursing care facility.
Cerio, acting in a lawsuit brought against the board by the Civil Service Employees Association, said the board’s decision to go into a a secret “executive session” shortly before that vote was based on “statutorily insufficient” reasons.
The conversation that did take place in the closed door meeting, the judge said, “exceeded” the reasons that had been given publicly by board members before they met in private — “contracts” and “negotiations.”
“The public was thus not ‘fully aware’ of that which the board intended to discuss behind closed doors,” Cerio wrote in the 9-page decision.
The board provided no advance public notice that a proposal to sell the Manor would come before it that day, and the proposal did not appear on the agenda issued prior to the meeting.
Mark Kotzin, a spokesman for CSEA, the union that represents more than 200 Manor workers, called Cerio’s decision “a victory for the people of Otsego County and for good government.”
“We held them to the standards they’re supposed to abide by — and we’re proud of that,” Kotzin said. “Hopefully, it’s the way they will operate in in the future. We hope this will give them pause to reconsider the scheduled sale of the nursing home. If not, we hope this will give the public time to have more input into the process.”
Several county board members contacted by The Daily Star said they were unaware of the ruling until they were informed of it by a reporter.
Rep. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, the chairwoman of the board’s Manor Committee, had made one of the motions to go into executive session Sept. 5, saying the reason was “contracts.”
She said that she believed she had a valid reason for asking for the executive session. She said she could not discuss the ramifications of Cerio’s decision until she discussed it with County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, who represented the board in the lawsuit and who offered legal guidance during the meeting that Cerio said failed to comply with the Open Meeting Law.
Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, said he didn’t think the Cerio ruling would prompt the board to veer away from its goal of privatizing the Manor.
“The state wants counties out of the nursing-home business,” he said. “They have reduced the reimbursements to the counties, and therefore you’re going to have to raise taxes 20 to 40 percent to keep it. Where I’m at is that taxes are already at their maximum. They can’t go any higher. If we have to redo the vote, so what.”
Powers said that the CSEA lawsuit should serve as a reminder to board members why a plan to keep the Manor as a county-owned property — touted by Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek — was flawed. One component of what Kosmer called a “framework” hinged on opening negotiations with CSEA with the goal of getting the union to make significant contractual concessions that would yield savings for the county.
“If you ever did go into a legal negotiation with the union, they would use every trick in the book to their advantage, and it would be years before you could ever sell the Manor,” he said. “You’re better off getting out of the nursing home business quickly” while qualified potential buyers are still in the market to acquire the properties.
Kosmer, whose proposal to pursue ways to find ways to keep the Manor a public property was effectively spiked by the board last week, said he still believes county lawmakers could explore privatization even while taking a “parallel track” of finding methods to cut the growing public subsidy to the nursing home.
“It wouldn’t be impeding the sale at all” to spend two or three months investigating ways to raise new revenue and shave operating costs at the Manor, Kosmer insisted.