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Golf contract dispute between Amsterdam mayor, council going to court

Thursday, March 20, 2014
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— The escalating power struggle between Amsterdam’s mayor and Common Council, sparked months ago by golf course contract disagreements, will land in court today.

Last week, Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit against the Common Council, city controller and deputy mayor, claiming they usurped her contract-signing power by awarding the city golf course service contract to golf pro Joe Merendo without her signature.

In response, the Common Council hired its own lawyer over the weekend. The matter will land in State Supreme Court in Montgomery County this morning for an initial hearing.

Tension over the golf contract has gripped city government for months. Thane and the previous Common Council agreed last year to put out a call for proposals to run the city golf course, hoping to draw some interest and spark new interest in the recreational site.

When the new Common Council took office in January, it ignored the proposals that had been submitted, opting instead to rehire Merendo, the longtime golf pro who filed a lawsuit against the city after he was informed his contract had expired.

Thane vetoed the council’s move. The council voted to override her veto. Then, when Thane refused to sign Merendo’s contract, the council voted to authorize Deputy Mayor Diane Hatzenbuhler to sign in Thane’s place.

Amsterdam’s city charter allows the deputy mayor to take over when the actual mayor is somehow incapacitated.

“I was never even sick,” Thane said.

The strife makes for a long and complicated saga, but the council’s lawyer, Michael Brockbank, said the core issue is actually pretty simple: “The question is, does the mayor have to sign a contract approved by the council?”

At a meeting Tuesday night, the council voted to rescind its earlier vote allowing Hatzenbuhler to sign contracts. The deputy mayor signature issue, Brockbank said, complicated the meat of the case. He recommended the council repeal it to streamline things before going to court.

“We want to get this done so taxpayers can stop paying for people like me,” he said.

Both Thane and the council are pulling resources from a professional services line item in the city budget to pay for their lawyers. Thane said $14,000 a year is set aside for such things.

The price is justified, she says, noting that every year, the golf course costs city taxpayers thousands of dollars just to water. It’s a big investment, over which Thane said the city currently has no oversight.

“It’s a city facility,” she said. “We should be in control of the money going in and out.”

Other proposals submitted last year suggested the city get a slice of cart fees and the pro-shop revenue, which Thane said Merendo’s contract stipulates goes to him.

But there’s more than a contract on the line. Thane said she’s defending the powers of the mayor’s office.

“Whatever happens will set a precedent in the city of Amsterdam forever,” Brockbank said.

Right now, the mayor has contract-signing power. If a judge rules in favor of the council, not only will Merendo keep his job but future contracts will be within the council’s grasp.

“There are some big contracts coming up,” Thane said, explaining she doesn’t want the council to be able to override her authority.

For Amsterdam, internal government lawsuits aren’t all that common, but Brockbank said the current power struggle has been played out in towns and cities across the state.

“They all have their own charters,” he said. “It’s not uniform, so every little government has to set its own precedent on who has the power.”

 
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