SARATOGA SPRINGS — City leaders at Monday’s City Council meeting expressed concern over a court order halting city employees from publicly commenting in an official capacity on a widely reported Broadway shooting on Nov. 20.
The temporary restraining order was issued by state Supreme Court Justice Dianne Freestone after Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen filed a request for the restraining order on Nov. 23. She sought the order to contain what prosecutors deemed an alarming amount of evidence-sharing and speculation from City Hall in the aftermath of the violent incident, court documents say.
Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino alleged in a resolution that the order was illegally delivered to the city without notice, offered little window to respond and impeded the administration’s right to free speech.
“Last week, we had a fatal accident at a construction site,” said Montagnino. “It’s under investigation. I don’t want there to ever be a precedent set where any public official in this city would feel reluctant to speak out about an incident like that, because, oh well, it’s under investigation and now are we going to have the DA step in and stomp her foot and say, ‘you can’t talk about that either?'”
More than 400 employees work for the city.
Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub pushed for the board to table the resolution, which was added to the agenda during the meeting. Golub stated that he probably doesn’t disagree with the merits of the document, but believes council members and the city’s attorney, Tony Izzo, should have an opportunity to look it over.
Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran claimed that the measure didn’t deviate far from city government norms.
“I’m much more concerned about us maintaining that active position where we’re showing that this isn’t acceptable,” said Moran. “I think that’s important.”
Without Golub’s approval, the resolution was ultimately pushed to Friday.
The council hasn’t received a unilateral court order of the like in at least 35 years, Izzo said. The order bars city officials from releasing evidence, “speculating as to the quality, quantity or clarity of any evidence,” and providing legal insight on the open investigation.
According to footage released at a press conference on the day of the incident, a group appeared to attack now-identified Rutland County, Vt., Sheriff’s Deputy Vito Caselnova IV around 3 a.m. The deputy and another man allegedly engaged in a brief shootout on Broadway. Police shot the deputy after he reportedly did not respond to orders to drop his weapon. Caselnova survived, but was badly injured. Caselnova, a woman believed to be his girlfriend and another man involved in the shootout were injured. The other man was also badly wounded.
State, local and county law enforcement officials have remained tight-lipped since releasing bite-sized details in the wake of the probe.
Montagnino and Mayor Ron Kim believed that clearing up additional information would dispel online rumors.
Heggen, about 30 minutes before the Nov. 20 press event, cautioned both officials against disclosing details early in the probe.
The footage, according to the district attorney’s office via court filings, influenced three eyewitnesses.
Kim and Montganino violated municipal and state policies during the press conference, Heggen alleged in the affidavit. Additionally, Montganino’s public remarks of an “earlier interaction” between two groups at a bar before the incident wasn’t backed up with evidence, she claimed.
“The baseless and speculative nature put forth by the commissioner is not of an abstract or theoretical nature,” Heggen said in court documents. “As evidenced by the attached articles written by NBC News and The Associated Press, the commissioner’s inappropriate, unsubstantiated, and recklessly prejudicial statements to the press have now become the official ‘narrative’ of the major news cycle.”
The district attorney has not publicly commented on the court order.
Kim in an earlier interview declined to comment on the content of the restraining order, but said the city plans to challenge the district attorney’s complaint on procedural and substantive grounds. The mayor is currently seeking quotes for the cost of an attorney for the case. The city has until late December to makes its case before the justice.
“The gag order violates free speech as it prevents all city employees [even elected officials] from stating opinions on the case,” Montagnino said in a text message. “It was also obtained illegally [with no prior notice to us].”
“I’ve responded to TROs [temporary restraining orders] in the past and they’re usually five days at most,” Kim said during the meeting. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I want you all in here in 24 hours’, but a month is very shocking.”
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.