The Clarkstown Town Board voted unanimously to authorize an agreement with the law firm of Joseph J. Savino to handle all the town’s tax certiorari matters. The annual retainer will be $88,740. When the firm was initially retained in January 2012 the annual fee was $87,000.
The White Plains law firm was hired last year to handle the tax certioraris after eliminating the position of the deputy town attorney, who previously was in charge of the workload.
The hiring was a controversial one, with local residents questioning the hiring throughout the year for a variety of issues. One big topic that came up throughout last year was in regards to potential legal issues facing Savino, the Bronx Republican chairman. Michael Hull, of Bardonia, brought them up again at Thursday’s meeting, saying, “Anyone can conduct a simple Google News search which will turn up a host of references to Mr. Savino, which appear to raise serious questions of his ethical standards if not his suitability to be associated in any way with this Town Board.”
Councilman George Hoehmann said that while board members might be aware of some issues written about Savino, they don’t know of any actual legal trouble he’s in.
“There are a lot of things that are out on the internet, there are a lot of things that are on blogs,” he said. “Some of the things that are referenced are from blogs and some of the things referenced are from news articles.”
Hoehmann said Town Attorney Amy Mele looked into any potential issues.
“We’re saving a significant amount of money from what we were previously paying, we’re no paying benefits. In my mind it’s a win-win,” Hoehmann said. “He’s demonstrated over the past year that he’s more than up to the task and there’s nothing of a factual nature that would indicate that there any issues with his licensure, he’s in good standing with the Bar Association. All of these things were checked out by the town attorney, and she recommends that he be reengaged to handle this for the coming year.”
Last year, when the initial vote on Savino took place, Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner was the lone board member to vote against the hire. At the time, she said she felt he came with “baggage,” and mentioned at Thursday’s meeting that she read some of the articles Hull was referencing, leading to her “baggage” comment.
Hausner, however, changed her vote after seeing Savino’s work with the town and voted in favor of the hire on Thursday.
“Over the past year, I have seen him work for the town, and specifically we all had the opportunity to be in court during the Palisades Mall case and [see] the work he was doing with that,” she said. “I was impressed by it, and I believe that over the course of the year, he’s proved that him and his firm have done a good job in this area.”
The other major issue Hull and other residents had with the hire is they don’t think proper process was followed. Earlier this year, Mele said when looking for firms to handle the town’s tax certiorari matters, she reached out to firms she knew did work with other municipalities. She added she was looking at bigger firms than the standard Rockland firm, and so she looked at places in Westchester and Long Island. Hull again questioned the decision Thursday, directing his question at Hoehmann and Councilman Frank Borelli.
“Is it your position that there are no law firms or lawyers in Rockland County capable of doing tax cert work for this board who do not have what might be charitably called a ‘cloud’ associated with their past behavior?” Hull said.
Hull also doesn’t think bids were sought from other firms last year, noting a Freedom of Information Law request he placed shows two requests for proposals from other firms were sent by the town the same day Savino was hired.
The resolution on Thursday said the town attorney researched and interviewed other law firms besides Savino before recommending the rehire. Hull questioned that and Mele said that was an error, and no other firms were interviewed.
“We retain these resolutions on our system, and when we redo them, I think that this paragraph is just a leftover,” she said.
That part of the resolution was struck from the agreement.