Legislature turns leadership of DSS legal services over to St. Lawrence County attorney
BY JIMMY LAWTON
North Country This Week
CANTON – Following a split vote and a heated debate, St. Lawrence County legislators voted 8-6 to give control of the county’s Department of Social Services legal team to the county attorney.
Those in favor of the transition cited past problems at the department which included a buildup of legal paperwork that county Legislator Joseph Lightfoot said was keeping kids stuck under county care, when they should have been eligible for adoption or foster care.Lightfoot said as many as 350 children were under custody care at one time and said that numbers could rise up to 400 this year. He also said that DSS Legal had sought help from the county attorney's office in previous situations after judges raised issues and cases began piling up.
He said county Attorney Stephen Button and the assistant county attorney stepped in to straighten things out.
Lightfoot also raised issues regarding investigation of complaints related to Child Protective Services. He said currently CPS workers are allowed to work as foster parents and if there is a problem raised or alleged they are investigated by the same agency. He said creating a separation of the legal department from the CPS department eliminates that conflict.
Among those opposing the change most adamantly were legislators David Forsythe, Nicole Terminelli and John Burke.
Forsythe said that while he believed the county attorney could be helpful to DSS Legal, he feared the changes were for political reasons, rather than practical ones. Forsythe also said that while he believed Button could handle the extra workload, that may not be the case should the county attorney change in the future.
Currently, former legislator David Haggard serves as general counsel for the Department of Social Services. The resolution would change his role to assistant county attorney.
Burke raised similar concerns and said that he believed such a major change to two departments should come from requests made by the departments. He said as far as he was aware, no such request was made.
He also went to bat for DSS Commissioner Cynthia Ackerman, who has been in the position for less than a year. He said that she has been working hard to right a ship that was beleaguered by high turnover and a lack of employees. He said she has made strong progress and deserved more time to bring things in order before pulling the rug out from under her.
Akerman, who was put in the hot seat, said she would defer to whatever decision was made by the legislature. No legislators that spoke raised concerns about Akerman’s performance, though supporters of the resolution suggested the additional attorneys would assist her in her efforts to shape up the department.
After some circling of issues, St. Lawrence County Chairman William Sheridan ended the discussion after the question was called.
Burke objected, saying it wasn’t the chair’s “prerogative” to end the discussion. However, a vote was called and supported prompting a vote on the resolution.
Voting in favor of the measure were Sheridan, Lightfoot, Kevin Acres, Harry Smithers, Larry Denesha, Daniel Fay, Rita Curran and Rick Perkins.
Opposed were Forsythe, Burke, Terminelli, Tony Arquiett, Jim Reagen and Suzanne Fiacco.
Margaret Haggard abstained from the vote as she is married to David Haggard.