Roadblocks in Rotterdam over requests for information

·3 min read

Feb. 17—By Shenandoah Briere

The Daily Gazette

It's been eight months since a former Rotterdam town board member filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for documents related to the town hiring two law firms for legal services.

He's only received documents for one of the firms.

"You got two attorneys that serve on the town board that should know better," said Robert Godlewski Tuesday.

Godlewski, who served on the town board for five years, said the town approved two contracts July 22, 2020 to hire law firms Barclay Damon of Albany and Girvin & Ferlazzo, PC of Albany for legal services. However, the resolutions did not provide the costs associated with the contracts nor details about what legal services were to be provided.

"When I saw no dollar amount on the resolutions or contract I became suspicious," Godlewski said in an email.

He sent a FOIL request the next day asking the town to provide all documentation related to the two law firms, including the contracts and any "invoices and vendor supporting documentation."

But eight months later Godlewski said he has only received documents related to Barclay Damon's legal services.

Originally Godlewski had been denied access to the documents. He said the town's denial was because the town said the documents were considered inter office memos.

But Appeals Officer John Woodward said the records should be disclosed.

"It is not unreasonable for a citizen to be aware of legal contracts and their costs incurred," Woodward said in an email to Godlewski, Town Attorney Kate McGuirl and Town Clerk Diane Marco dated November 20, 2020.

According to an engagement letter sent to Rotterdam Town Supervisor Steven Tommasone, Barclay Damon was hired to audit the Rotterdam Police Department's procedures and policies. The cost associated with the internal investigation was to be based on the time spent by attorneys and paralegals. The primary attorney, Michael Murphy, charges $300 an hour.

The contract to retain the law firm was signed more than a month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order on reforming police departments.

The letter does not give a timeline for when the audit was expected to be done. Murphy declined to comment on whether the audit was finished or when the town wanted it finished.

However, Godlewski is still fuming over not receiving the second retainer documents for Girvin & Ferlazzo.

"They have refused to give me that second one," he said.

Godlewski said he has not heard anything from the town records officer on the matter. In December Godlewski reached out to a lawyer about filing an Article 78 to get the documents, but was told it could cost him around $3,000 with no guarantee that the court would rule in his favor. He then contacted Paul Wolf, the president for the state Coalition for Open Government, who also sent letters to the town regarding the matter. Wolf said he talked to McGuirl a few weeks ago.

"She stated to me over the phone that the one attorney retainer agreement that has not been provided does not exist in that they never went forward with retaining the firm," Wolf said in an email Tuesday. "Ms. McGurl stated that she would send a response in writing but that was several weeks ago and to date I have not received a written response, nor has Mr. Godlewski that I am aware of."

Godlewski said it doesn't matter if the town didn't go through with the contract.

"If the supervisor signed the agreement in July of last year it is a public document," Godlewski said in an email. "It is not a question if they went forward with it, the Town Board passed a resolution and never rescinded it. Here is a perfect example of the town attorney playing word games. Sounds like the contract was so damaging that they wanted to hide what they were doing! Is it not strange that it took six months for them to give this answer and not contact the Foil Appeal Officer? A prime example of "Plausible Denial"!!!!!"

Sharon Tallman, the Rotterdam records access officer, did not return calls for comment.