When Syracuse’s Common Councilor Bob Dougherty was invited to a city meeting this weekend, he had to forward the email invitation to six other councilors’ personal emails because they lost access to their work email months ago.
These five councilors, along with the council president, city clerk, and other city staff employees have been unable to access their emails ever since Mayor Stephanie Miner shut down their office computers and servers on July 1. The shutdown came after a number of council members refused to sign a computer-use policy agreement.
The policy allows the Miner administration to monitor city employees’ emails and discipline the councilors if they violated the agreement. Since then, five councilors—headed by Councilor-At-Large Kathleen Joy—voted to file suit against Miner’s administration.
“That lawsuit has to do with the separation of powers,” said Joy. “The other councilors who are involved in this recognize that we are the legislative branch of government. We take that very seriously.”
Since the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are entirely separate, Joy said Miner is overstepping basic American law by demanding the councilors sign the policy.
“I can’t imagine any elected official would think that they can cross the boundaries into somebody else’s territory and demand that they be fired because they don’t follow the policy that the mayor wants.” Joy added, “It’s ridiculous. It’s not a kingdom; it’s a government; it’s a democracy.”
Like Joy, Councilor-At-Large Jean Kessner also based her opposition on a similar argument: the importance of respecting government boundaries.
“The only power the Common Council has is the power of the purse, the reason for that is the separation of powers, we are the legislative branch,” Kessner said. “It works like that in Washington, it works like that in Syracuse.”
The mayor’s office has declined to comment on this story.
Along with Joy, councilors Jean Kessner, Nader Maroun, Chad Ryan, and Jake Barrett voted to move forward with the lawsuit against Miner, while Councilors Pamela Hunter, Bob Dougherty, Helen Hudson, and Khalid Bey voted against the lawsuit.
Syracuse’s City Clerk John Copanas, who is also supporting the lawsuit, said Miner’s agreement “contradicts the city charter.”
“The city charter says that I work in the legislative branch and I’m an independent office of the mayor. And she wants us to be dependent on the mayor in a disciplinary fashion and there’s no way that’s how the charter sees it,” Copanas added.
Although Copanas said a lawsuit is not ideal, he added that Miner’s administration has made it difficult to find a solution to the issue. Copanas and the councilors have signed computer policy agreements in the past, but none had been similar to the current debated agreement.
“What they could’ve done is let the old policy stay in place until a new one was negotiated,” Copanas said. “What the mayor chose to do is if you don’t sign the one I put in front of you, I’m shutting down the computers—there was no negotiation.”
Copanas said these past policies were a page long, listing what could and could not be done while using the office computers. Yet this year, the agreement suggested people could be disciplined and fired by the mayor.
“You know this is insane,” Copanas said.
However, Dougherty, a councilor who signed the computer-use agreement and did not vote to pursue a lawsuit against the mayor, said the disputed negotiations had a lot to do with tensions between the city clerk’s office and the mayor’s office.
Since the public elects the common councilors, and the city clerk is elected by the councilors, there have been disputes of whether the city clerk is a city employee or a publically elected official.
“The mayor’s office does not consider him to be an elected official and there’s been friction back and forth between the clerk and the mayor’s office,” Dougherty said. “That existed way before the computer thing.”
Although Dougherty said he understands “the principle” of the separation of powers, he expressed his discontent with the entire situation and said the lawsuit is a waste of money.
“We shouldn’t be spending taxpayer’s money on this lawsuit,” Dougherty said. “The money’s kind of a drop in the bucket but maybe it would’ve been better to use that money to buy our own server too.”
However, Copanas said that the mayor could have saved half of the lawsuit’s expenses by not seeking outside lawyers’ assistance.
“I guess the real question is why has the mayor hired outside lawyers, she has the corporation council’s office to defend her.” Copanas added, “Maybe it’s possible they don’t agree with her position?”
Copanas and Dougherty do agree on one aspect of this issue that has continued for months now; it will not be solved anytime soon.
Copanas said he hopes that with this lawsuit comes a third party that could help resolve the issue.
“I find it very hard to believe that the courts are going to read the charter—which is what they’re going to have to base their decision on—and come to the conclusion that we are employees of the mayor,” Copanas said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”