The City Council voted 3-2 to appoint Corporation Counsel Rob Agostisi the new acting city manager on Jan. 30, at the end of a contentious special meeting that focused on a search process that dragged on for more than a year, and after a debate about whether the city would continue to look for a permanent city manager.
In what City Council President Anthony Eramo described as “probably the most important” decision this year, Civil Service Employees Association workers and other city employees packed City Hall in a show of support for Agostisi, who has worked for the city for 12 years and has served as its lead attorney since 2015.
Still, Agostisi had his share of critics who questioned the search process — one resident called it a “train wreck” — and the council’s decision to appoint him.
After the search for a permanent city manager came to a standstill last summer, council members said they were disappointed with a finalist from out of state who failed a background check before the holidays. Council members said that discussions about hiring Agostisi began in December.
Though Police Commissioner Mike Tangney assumed the role of acting city manager for more than a year, Eramo said that the need for Tangney to focus on his responsibilities as police commissioner took on a sense of urgency following the recent retirement of two department lieutenants. Officials have also said that Agostisi would bring stability ahead of upcoming budget talks and the busy summer season.
Eramo and others lauded Agostisi’s institutional knowledge of the city. “The trait that sets Rob really apart is his knack for shepherding the city through matters of crisis,” Eramo said. “He plays the long game … he understands that broad initiatives may be unpopular at first, and he’s willing to shoulder the criticisms when he feels that the long-term benefits justify the short-term headaches.”
Agostisi, 43, who lives in Dix Hills, said that as acting city manager, he would receive a $20,000 pay increase to $174,000. He added that he would continue to play an active role in major litigation against the city, but would hand over cases with any potential conflicts of interest to other city attorneys. As acting city manager, he said, he would not have to meet a requirement to move to the city within 90 days.
A backroom deal?
Councilman John Bendo voted against the appointment, calling it a “backroom deal” before the meeting and describing it as a move to install Agostisi as the permanent city manager.
Bendo, an independent, has opposed the appointment, citing a state comptroller’s audit of what Bendo and others called questionable separation payouts to current and former employees in 2017 — including Agostisi — and a potential conflict of interest in Agostisi’s role as both acting city manager and corporation counsel.
Bendo also said he was unaware of the special meeting until after the city issued a news release announcing the appointment on Jan. 28. He added that the council did not meet collectively to discuss Agostisi’s appointment, as it had with other candidates. He asked Eramo why information in a “thought out” news release was withheld from some council members.
“Just you, John,” said Eramo, adding that a notice about the meeting was sent out on Jan. 28, and that all of the council members had met individually with Agostisi. “You opposed Rob Agostisi. You made it clear throughout the entire year. If you want to be opposition, then you will be opposition. You made it clear he did not have your support, so we moved on.”
Bendo said at a Jan. 15 meeting that the council was set to hire an executive search firm to help find a permanent city manager. Bendo maintained that the council had agreed to move forward with the search firm in December, and that Agostisi had even negotiated the price down on a contract that had yet to be signed.
In an email obtained by the Herald dated Jan. 3, however, four council members, all Democrats, had already included comments lauding Agostisi in a draft of a news release announcing the appointment.
“We were in negotiations,” Agostisi told Bendo. “The way I learned that those negotiations were over was at the January 15 meeting, when you decided to announce … that we were hiring a search firm.”
Council members at odds over process
Councilwoman Anissa Moore — who described herself as an “outsider” on the council — had received some criticism on social media for initially supporting the appointment, but said at the meeting she voted against it because there was no timetable for how long Agostisi would serve, and after being told that the search for a permanent city manager had effectively ended.
Though Eramo said that Moore had recommended in December that the council revisit appointing Agostisi, Moore said that council members had also discussed moving forward with an executive search firm. “I have witnessed a year of failed opportunities for us to obtain a city manager during this search process,” she said. “After endless conversations and ongoing discussions, it became obvious to me that my colleagues had no intention of moving forward with the search firm as proposed by Councilman Bendo. I felt, as a member of this council, it was my duty to try to move this city forward. I did believe at that time that we could move forward.”
Moore called for a vote to amend the resolution hiring Agostisi, stating that the city also retain an executive search firm to continue looking for a permanent city manager, a measure that passed by a 3-2 vote. Eramo and council Vice President Chumi Diamond voted against it.
Moore accused council members of playing games before she voted against Agostisi’s appointment. “I’m concerned because we’re actually voting to move forward without any controls in place,” she said, adding that she had no personal issues with Agostisi. “For two members of the council still not being able to work with us has given me the indication that nothing has really changed. It’s unfortunate, because now I can’t trust the process. We just have a blank statement.”
Eramo disagreed with the contention that the council was playing games and holding “secret meetings.” The council, he said, would evaluate Agostisi’s performance after the summer, at which point it would consider making him the permanent city manager or revisit hiring a search firm. Both Diamond and Eramo said that moving forward with a search firm before then would undermine Agostisi’s work as acting city manager.
“We believed, together, that he was the most appropriate person,” Diamond said.
Councilman Scott Mandel said that Agostisi was not entering into a contract with the city. “My understanding is that this wasn’t a secret, something that was done behind closed doors,” Mandel said. “Three council members came to me with this.”
Bendo, however, called the move a “done deal.” “If the search is over, you’re effectively appointing a permanent city manager,” he said. “I hope my concerns are unfounded and he turns out to be a good, diligent acting city manager.”
For his part, Agostisi struck an optimistic note at the end of the meeting, pledging to move the city forward — and change his critics’ minds. “I know this has not been easy tonight,” he said. “But there is something that is starting to emerge, I think, and what I hope that is is hope. I promise I will be the best steward for my community and yours. I understand the opportunity I was given and the responsibility that goes with it.”