Lawyer: Clerk’s firing tied to vendetta

Councilman-at-Large James Handy contends he voted to fire former city clerk Gary Margiotta on the ba

Councilman-at-Large James Handy contends he voted to fire former city clerk Gary Margiotta on the basis of three instances of alleged insubordination.

That was Handy’s testimony in his deposition in Margiotta’s wrongful termination lawsuit.

After 16 years of service, Margiotta was fired Dec. 29, 2006, and escorted from City Hall by a police officer. Handy has never disclosed the motivation for the firing but has admitted conferring with three Common Council allies on the phone before the action was taken.

Margiotta’s lawyer, Elmer Robert Keach III, said Tuesday that Handy’s explanation given in the deposition is specious and that the firing “had everything to do with [Mayor Tim Hughes’] vendetta against Mr. Margiotta.”

The deposition is another step in Margiotta’s suit against his former employer. Keach said he has also taken depositions from former councilwoman Shirley Savage and Ethics Board Chairwoman Robin Walrath and plans to take sworn statements from the other members of Handy’s Common Council majority, Hughes and other officials.

Keach said Margiotta was targeted because he accommodated the controversial Savage in her frequent requests for city records. In the days before the firing, Savage obtained a contract between the city Transit Department and a local business and went public with claims the document was improperly notarized and approved.

One of the instances of alleged insubordination, dating to sometime in 2005, stemmed from Handy’s brother being asked to return the next day after requesting a marriage license from Margiotta after the daily 3 p.m. license application deadline.

Handy testified that he and former Mayor Frank La Porta spoke to Margiotta about the incident and Margiotta “accused me of stiff-arming him … which wasn’t at all the case.”

In the deposition questioning, Keach asked if the term “stiff-arming” could be interpreted as “trying to get favoritism for your brother.”

Officials said the 3 p.m. policy had been in effect for about 10 years and that issuing marriage licenses in the final hour of work made it difficult to close by 4 p.m.

Handy testified Margiotta was never formally reprimanded either for that instance or incidents in 2006. Those incidents included exhibiting “attitude” when he informed Handy it was Handy’s duty and not the clerk’s to keep track of tabled resolutions and later, in the fall of 2006, when Handy said Margiotta raised his voice in criticizing the Common Council for failing to give then-Deputy Clerk Brenda Pedrick a raise commensurate with her years of service, Handy said.

Handy declined comment Tuesday on his deposition and on comments added by Keach.

Attorneys representing the city in the case did not return phone calls.

Handy testified that council colleagues never informed him of their reasons for voting to fire Margiotta. Three members of the council were not consulted or given an explanation, a development that led them to file an ethics complaint against the rest of the council.

But, in his run for re-election last year, former Councilman Lance Gundersen posted a message on the city message board saying he wanted Margiotta removed for general inability to perform the job tasks.

“Mr. Margiotta lacked the management, leadership and technical skill his office needed to be efficient. The clerk’s office was chronically behind in production of meeting minutes and demonstrated little technical ability to spearhead modern changes in information dissemination,” Gundersen wrote. Gundersen said then that his explanation was approved by the city’s law firm.

Handy’s other allies, former councilwomen Cynthia Morey and Lou Ann Warren, have not disclosed the reasons for their decisions.

Commenting Tuesday on the numerous instances in the deposition in which Handy said he could not remember details, Keach compared the councilman’s response to explanations for hiring a consultant to review former Chief John Harzinski’s administration of the police department.

“Isn’t it amazing that Mr. Handy can recall in great detail why Gary could not give his brother a marriage license in 2005, but he can’t remember why he voted in December to spend $8,000 in public money to have the police department investigated?” Keach asked.

Keach termed Handy’s testimony “pretty embarrassing,” and said “it is par for the course in Gloversville that a guy who worked for the city for 16 years would be dismissed on such specious claims. If I had $500 for every time Mr. Handy said he didn’t know or couldn’t remember I could retire today,” Keach said of Handy’s testimony. Keach said Handy’s explanations “aren’t going to work at trial.”

Hughes, who accompanied Handy and a police officer to Margiotta’s office that Dec. 29, did not return a phone call on Tuesday.

Keach asked Handy if he had any other “problems at all with Mr. Margiotta’s job performance.”

Handy replied: “I don’t recall other instances. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Later in his testimony, though, Handy said there were objections to Margiotta serving as secretary to the Gloversville Business Improvement District on city time. Keach pointed out Margiotta was assigned to the BID duty by former Mayor Frank La Porta. Handy said he was not aware of that directive.

On questioning about Handy reaching a phone consensus to fire Margiotta, Handy said: “I only needed four people to achieve this. I erred when I didn’t call the other three, but I only needed the four not to reappoint him.”

When later those four voted in a meeting to formally confirm their decision, Councilman James Robinson, R-3rd Ward, demanded an explanation from Handy.

“I thought the mayor could handle it better than I could, if you will,” Handy testified.

Hughes said previously he was not involved in the decision because the position of clerk is a council appointment.

Keach focused on statements made by Handy after the firing was widely criticized. Handy, in newspaper reports and a letter to the editor, said the council majority “acted in the best interest of the community” based on “facts I don’t care to reveal at this time … maybe never.”

Keach asked why, if insubordination was the reason for the firing, that could not be disclosed to the public and his fellow council members.

“I don’t know if I could. … I don’t know if I could divulge,” Handy testified.

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