SARATOGA COUNTY — A bitterly divided Saratoga County Board of Supervisors debated for three hours over possible disciplinary charges against County Administrator Spencer Hellwig III over the county’s handling of a pandemic-related pay issue in March and April.
In the end, though, the supervisors voted to form a committee to investigate the possibility of discipline against the county’s top manager and possibly other managers. Moreau Supervisor Todd Kusnierz initially had proposed that Hellwig be terminated, effective immediately.
Kusnierz’ motion sparked more than three hours of contentious debate highlighting how the big towns and small towns represented on the board are divided against each other, with large-town supervisors seeking Hellwig’s ouster.
Kusnierz eventually withdrew his resolution, and Clifton Park Supervisor Jonathan Schopf made a motion seeking Hellwig’s suspension for 50 days while there is further investigation. That then evolved in a decision to form a board committee to investigate, with no suspension at this time.
Kusnierz did not specifically spell out the reason for seeking to discipline the 32-year county employee, who has been administrator since 2011, but debate focused on the county’s handling of the pay controversy.
“For the record, my reason is make a change,” Kusnierz said.
As county administrator, Hellwig is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the county and development of the county budget. He earns just over $162,000, making him the county’s highest-paid employee.
Hellwig was not at Tuesday’s board meeting in Ballston Spa, but a law firm he has hired sent the county a letter saying that Hellwig reserved his rights to contest any disciplinary action, and doesn’t believe he should be made a “scapegoat” for the bad publicity the county has received. Disciplining him, the attorney said, would be “arbitrary and capricious.”
The lengthy debate highlighted the deep tensions between a group of eight supervisors who represent large-population Northway corridor towns and the 15 other supervisors who represent smaller towns.
“I do not support this. It is not right and it is not proper,” said Saratoga Town Supervisor Tom Wood III, who spoke in support of Hellwig and said the proposal didn’t follow established disciplinary procedures.
The issues stem from the county’s only-briefly-followed March 15 decision to pay county employees time and a half if they were required to report to work during the early phase of the COVID-19 shutdown, and confusion over who made that decision and how.
The Board of Supervisors on March 17 delegated the issue to a special COVID-19 compensation committee, and with a few days and weeks, the extra-pay decisions were scaled back and rescinded in a series of decisions by that committee, which did not meet in public.The pay controversy generated embarrassing headlines for the county along the way.
An internal investigation led by Waterford Supervisor John E. Lawler found numerous instances of “miscommunication” leading to confusion.
A separate report commissioned from an outside law firm, E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, and not yet made public, reportedly found that the shifting positions on the pay issue opened the county to liability, and that its decisions were poorly documented. It also found that Hellwig and county Director of Human Resources Margaret McNamara, who initiated the extra pay idea and were members of the compensation committee, did not have the authority to come up with the time-and-a-half plan.
The supervisors who proposed bringing the initial motion to terminate Hellwig to the floor were Phil Barrett and Schopf of Clifton Park, Kevin Tollisen of Halfmoon, Darren O’Connor of Malta, Kusnierz, John Lant of Wilton, and Matthew Veitch and Tara Gaston of Saratoga Springs. As a group, since spring they have been calling themselves the Saratoga County Public Health Northway Corridor Task Force.
The other 15 members of the Board of Supervisors to varying degrees defended Hellwig on Tuesday, with some saying he was the victim of a political power play. Because the board uses a population-weighted voting system in which large towns have more weight than small towns, the eight supervisors had the power to pass a discipline resolution had they forced the issue.
“To throw him [out] about just two or three months before budget season I think is ludicrous,” said Charlton Supervisor Alan R. Grattidge.
Jonathan Berstein, a labor lawyer for the county, said any employee who faces discipline is entitled to due process, even if they serve “at will,” as the county administrator does, and some assurance that any charges against them are valid and not political.
That led to a brief adjournment of the board meeting, after which the board voted 22-1 to form a committee representing both large towns and small towns to look at who, if anyone, should face discipline.
Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086,