In rare rebuke, city council votes to censure one of its own members
It was an awkward night for the Rochester City Council as members debated whether to issue a formal rebuke of a colleague.
Ultimately, the council passed a motion Monday evening to censure member Michael Wojcik. The move was in response to an Ethical Practices Board decision that found Wojcik had violated the city's ethics policy when he repeatedly asked for an early draft of a public art master plan.
While the censure has no tangible impact — such as a fine, suspension or loss of voting rights — it does serve as a rare public condemnation of an elected representative.
The city pitched in $15,000 to help fund the arts plan, and Wocjik — who frequently posts city documents and emails to his personal website — believed that the plan should be available through a public data request. City Attorney Terry Adkins disagreed, and advised Wocjik that because the plan was commissioned by the private Greater Rochester Arts and Cultural Trust, it was not subject to the same degree of transparency as a public document.
Wojcik ignored the city attorney's advice, and in a back-and-forth dialogue with trust CEO Bari Amadio, he insisted that her organization make the document available. (Wocjik posted the emails exchanged between him and Amadio to his blog.)
In response, Amadio filed a report in February alleging Wojcik "utilized his public office in an effort to intimidate and threaten me to turn over private materials." Amadio's complaint also stated that the Ward 2 representative "used the protection of his office to commit libel by publishing a falsehood" about her.
While the ethic's board dismissed the allegation of libel — stating it was outside their scope of work — it did find that Wojcik's conduct violated the city's ethics code by "failing to uphold the responsibilities of public office" and by attempting to "use his public position to secure special privileges or exemptions."
Following the ethics board's ruling, the council had three options on how to address the issue: it could vote to remove Wojcik from the council, issue a censure, or dismiss the findings.
Following a fervent discussion, the council voted 4-2 in favor of a censure. Council members Mark Bilderback, Ed Hruska and Mark Hickey joined Council President Randy Staver in supporting the measure. (Wojcik was seated in the council chambers, but recused himself from discussing and voting on the issue.)
"These are never fun," said Hruska. "We have a process in place that we all supported and put forward in a way to try and create some standards and some practices." He added, "At this point, I believe that we need to support [the ethics board's] findings."
Council member Nick Campion argued adamantly against the motion. Campion contended that while he was not in a position to defend Wojcik, he did not feel the findings warranted such a strong response from the council.
"This idea that because it's just a public rebuke by the council, it has no impact; the reality is this is the beginning of the descent into what is best described as a food fight between people who don't agree. And to use the council as the avenue for that is highly objectionable to me," said Campion.
Staver disagreed and argued that given the board's findings, some kind of formal action should be taken against Wojcik.
"We, in fact, as an elected body, need to hold our self to a higher standard," said Staver. "This does not warrant the sort of harsh treatment of expulsion, or something of that nature. But nor can I justify that these actions are acceptable behavior and methods for members of the elected body. Not one bit."
It marks just the third time in recent memory that the Rochester City Council has issued a censure against one of its members. The other two instances, according to City Attorney Terry Adkins, involved a council member who made inappropriate remarks about a murder case in Stewartville, and another involving claims of sexual harassment toward a city staff person.
Following Monday's censure, Wojcik downplayed the reprimand. In a video posted to Facebook, his message was: "Who cares?" — adding that it was only a "slap on the wrist."
"I think the community gets this. The community wants transparency," said Wojcik. "The community doesn't want the Greater Rochester Arts [and Cultural] Trust taking dollars, not doing what they say they're going to do, and then trying to manipulate a process behind the scenes."
He added, "I am honored that I helped expose all of that, and I am not going away. I am committed to continuing to do this, so if that's not what you want from your elected officials, then next time you probably want to elect somebody else."
The council failed to override two vetoes by Mayor Ardell Brede.
In one case, the mayor vetoed a council action that would have denied a request to demolish the Kutzky House. (Some background on that here and here.) The council has until Sept. 7 to take action before the demolition request is automatically approved.
The second decision vetoed by the mayor would have allowed for live streaming of the council's Committee of the Whole meetings. The council had passed the measure by a 5-1 vote, but Staver flipped sides the second time around. He did not provide an explanation for his change in position. (Prior to Monday's meeting, I offered my personal take on the benefits of increased transparency.)
In both cases, the council needed 5/7 votes to overturn the veto.
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