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‘Gift’ Work In Dunkirk May Get Further Scrutiny

DUNKIRK — During the Feb. 2 Zoom meeting, Dunkirk Councilman At-Large Paul VanDenVouver offered a vague, yet curious remark regarding a property incident he was looking into near the entrance of Point Gratiot.

“I’m still doing some investigation work on that,” he said. “I’ve been gathering up a lot of material and I should have something in the near future.”

Toward the end of this week’s meeting was when VanDenVouver offered the full reveal: an eight-page report by council attorney Dan Gard that alleges there was work done in 2019 by city Department of Public Works employees over three days in August on private property. Gard’s recommendation in the report of the “large, unjustifiable and unconstitutional gift of municipal resources to a private individual” was to refer this matter to the appropriate enforcement agencies, recommending both the state comptroller’s office as well as the FBI’s Public Corruption Division.

VanDenVouver said the probe was done in response to council allegedly receiving reports from city residents about the happenings on Aug. 5, 6 and 15, 2019, at 10 Finch St. in the city. VanDenVouver, during the meeting, said the work included 100 hours of manpower and four pieces of city equipment in the project that was estimated to cost taxpayers between $6,000 and $8,000.

Gard’s report noted current DPW Director Randy Woodbury admitted he had been to the property in question during the summer of 2016, when he served as city engineer. He marked a dead “scraggly” tree and confirmed that, as of that time, it was in the city’s right-of-way. Woodbury stated he did not know when the dead tree had been removed.

Employees who cut the trees in August 2019, Gard noted, stated that none of those they cut were “scraggly”or dead. Therefore, Gard surmised, the dead tree was likely removed prior to 2019.

Why and who authorized the project, Gard said, is one of the biggest questions that have yet to be answered. “My investigation did not uncover any connections between any of the city employees or (Woodbury) and the property owners,” his report noted. “However, it defies logic that a city crew would wake up one morning, during their busiest season, and decide to take on a three-day project without having someone instruct them to do so.”

Further calling the work illegal, Gard’s report said “the removal of live trees in the middle of a vacant area on private property did not serve any conceivable public purpose.”

That land in question was transferred from the city of Dunkirk to Carl and Susan Lis on Jan. 4, 2019, according to Chautauqua County records. The deed describes the property as a portion of unopened Perry Street between West Chestnut Street and Point Drive West.

In the document, Gard says he interviewed five city workers and one resident regarding the work. Calls to Gard’s office as to when he began the investigation were not returned as of Wednesday afternoon.

That Feb. 2 meeting in which VanDenVouver makes reference to his pending probe was the first council gathering after a letter was published in the OBSERVER by Carl Lis on Jan. 23-24. In the letter, Lis was critical of a lack of accomplishments by council in 2020 and also discussed Gard’s position.

“At day one, upon being sworn in to begin their term in 2020 it has been one negative thing after another,” Lis’ letter stated. “The council started 2020 by terminating three individuals who they deemed nonessential, for lack of a better word. How is the city attorney nonessential? This action by the council was foreshadowing of what the future would entail. The council is elected to maintain checks and balances, but they act more like a control board and want all the power.”

VanDenVouver also said he will seek resistition from the couple for the work that was done.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Wilfred Rosas said the city needs to be cautious being public regarding the matter. “These are very serious allegations that have not been proven,” he said.

Later on Wednesday, the city responded to the Gard’s report and noted omissions. In a statement to the OBSERVER, the city said deeds from 2020 and 2021 and filed as official public records with the Chautauqua County clerk or the easterly one-half of Perry Street were not included in the report. In addition, the city of Dunkirk retained a perpetual easement to construct a drainage pipe through the portions of unopened Perry Street that were conveyed in 2019, 2020 and this year. The easement totals 15 feet and needs to be clear of trees.

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