After almost a month of deliberation, lobbying, and controversy, the Board of Aldermen passed an amended resolution last night to retroactively pay for $35,000 in legal fees for a contract it had never approved.
The resolution narrowly passed 16 to 12, but not before nearly every alderman had weighed in on the matter during two hours of debate. The controversy erupted earlier this fiscal year when the Office of the Corporation Counsel, part of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s administration, signed and approved a contract with the law firm Berchem, Moses & Devlin, P.C. to assist the Office of Labor Relations. In doing so, the corporation counsel violated the city charter by failing to ask the Board of Aldermen for permission.
Because the counsel did not have the authority to approve the contract, the Board of Alderman could have denied the firm payment.
A personal apology by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. at an earlier meeting had not changed the minds of some of the measure’s opponents, who said the mistake threatened aldermanic authority and the separation of powers.
Board of Alderman President Jorge Perez, one of the resolution’s most vocal opponents, said the issue was extremely important.
“This is one of the most difficult situations I’ve seen this board go through,” Perez said. “The lobbying on this has been unprecedented. It’s an issue of whether our votes mean anything.”
Many supporters of the resolution said they acknowledged there had been an improper action, but the danger of a lawsuit for unpaid legal fees was too great. Furthermore, some said it was clear there had been no intentional wrongdoing.
“This is an issue of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing,” Ward 25 Alderwoman Ina Silverman said.
Ward 8 Alderman Michael Smart said he strongly disagreed, arguing that the Office of Corporation Counsel’s failure to consult the aldermen had been intentional.
“There is a pattern of arrogance,” Smart said. “I call on the mayor to demand the resignation of [Corporation Counsel] Thomas Ude.”
Several aldermen expressed their frustration with the length of the discussion, repeatedly asking for an end to deliberations. Three different measures to bring the issue to a vote were defeated before the Board of Alderman finally decided on the resolution.
Ward 11 Alderman Robert Lee, who supported the resolution, said the issue was a contentious one that should be brought to a close.
“I have to have forgiveness in my heart for this corporation,” Lee said. “It’s time to concede, stop bickering, stop fighting, and move on.”
The original form of the resolution called for the full contractual amount of $75,000 to be paid to Bercham, Moses & Devlin, but the Board voted to reduce the amount to $35,000 for services already rendered. Approval of this amendment was unanimous aside from a single dissenting vote from Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01.
Robert Smuts, one of DeStefano’s aides, said the mayor’s office was satisfied with the result of the vote.
“We felt it was important for the city’s continued functioning that this be passed,” Smuts said.
The mayor has said he believes the incident resulted from miscommunication between Corporation Counsel and the budget department. In response, DeStefano has given the Office of Corporation Counsel sole responsibility for handling legal contracts, including notifying the aldermen.