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By Rocco LaDuca / Talk of The Town

ROME – A state Supreme Court judge on Wednesday removed Katie Martin from the ballot as candidate for Utica Common Council 1st Ward following a legal dispute over her stated residency, which lies in the proposed Downtown Hospital footprint.

Judge Patrick MacRae’s ruling had set incumbent Common Councilwoman Maria McNiel – and the Council’s Democrat Majority Leader – to run unopposed for her third two-year term.

But hours later, Martin announced she will now appear on the Libertarian line on Election Day.

“Despite the intense interest of those trying to keep me off the ballot so Maria can run unopposed, my campaign is not over,” Martin said after the ruling. “Ultimately it’s up to the people to decide and not the system. As of today I was announced the endorsed Libertarian candidate for Utica Common Council in the First Ward. Everyone who wants to vote for me can do so on the Libertarian line November 5th!”

Although Judge MacRae refused to get into the politics of the ongoing #NoHospitalDowntown dispute against Mohawk Valley Health System, the judge did express his belief that the 442 Lafayette St. building in question has very little chance of ever being occupied by anyone considering its hazardous and dilapidated conditions.

McNeil challenged Martin’s designating petitions and signatures for the Republican, Conservative and Independent ballot lines based on evidence to suggest that Martin was not residing at 442 Lafayette St., despite the fact she listed this address as her residence on all her petitions. Although a candidate does not have to be residing within the district prior to taking office, the stated residence on the petitions must be accurate.

And that’s what brought this matter to Supreme Court in Rome.

Martin did sign a 12-month lease with Brett Truett in January to pay $1 per month, but she also signed a temporary 3-month lease in March to reside with her husband and children at the Westwood loft apartments at 167 Genesee St. in Downtown Utica, right next to her Character Coffee business.

Over two days, both McNeil and Martin testified about their differing observations concerning 442 Lafayette St. McNeil described several photographs she took of the building’s broken windows, crumbling chimney and dilapidated condition.

“In my opinion, it’s not livable,” McNeil said from the stand.

Martin, however, described the building as a “beautiful, remarkable home” that she had already begun to fix up and repair as she planned to move in. Martin acknowledged there was no electricity or heat in the building, the plumbing was minimal and the roof continued to leak. But, she added, they used a gas generator and propane heater to stay warm while they did minor repairs, like put up a temporary railing on the stairs and replace some water-damaged sheetrock. Besides regular visits to the location, Martin said she slept there once, with no bed or furniture besides a desk.

McNeil’s attorney, David Goldbas, saw Martin’s minor efforts to repair the building as “a scam, a sham” for the purpose of making it look like she planned to live there, but failed to get any building or rental occupancy permits.

Goldbas also called Martin’s 12-month rental agreement with Brett Truett a “sham lease” to pay $1 a month, which also raised questions in Judge MacRae’s mind.

Brett Truett, along with Jimmy Brock, is co-founder of the No Hospital Downtown group, and both have been outspoken critics of plans by MVHS, Oneida County and the City of Utica to build a $480-million hospital campus in the area. Both Truett and Brock have vowed to do everything they can to stop the Hospital project. Among the various legal challenges they expect to pursue are efforts to use Truett’s 442 Lafayette St. location – with its symbolic bright pink door – as standing to battle likely eminent domain actions in court.

On that front, Goldbas attempted to link Martin’s alleged residency at 442 Lafayette St. to the efforts of Truett and No Hospital Downtown to distinguish herself in the “hot topic” and “robust political debate” over the Hospital. Martin’s attorney Vince Rossi objected, however, and Judge MacRae abruptly ended Goldbas’ effort to muddy the waters with far-reaching speculation that was never raised during witness testimony.

“Please move on,” Judge MacRae told Goldbas, sternly.

Following closing arguments from both sides, Judge MacRae explained why Martin’s designating petitions must be stricken and disqualified, thus removing her from all three ballot lines.

First, Judge MacRae made clear that he found no evidence that Martin had fraudulently stated her residence at 442 Lafayette St., and he disagreed with Goldbas’ assertion that the whole thing was a “sham.” The judge also did not question Martin’s intention and hope to one day repair and move into the Lafayette Street building.

But, Judge MacRae ultimately concluded that the building was very likely a “public hazard,” and not Martin’s residence as stated. It was “painfully obvious” that 442 Lafayette St. would be very expensive to rehabilitate, MacRae stated, and “it doesn’t take an expert to recognize” that the property likely poses serious risks of exposure to lead paint and asbestos.

“I can’t imagine the building will ever be occupied,” Judge MacRae stated, based upon his assessment of photographs from inside the premises that were displayed in court.

But despite Martin’s best intentions, Judge MacRae concluded the bottom line: Martin made no effort to seek the proper building permits, certificate of occupancy or rental occupancy permit to even begin the process of rehabilitating 442 Lafayette so it could ultimately become inhabitable.

It was also pointed out that McNeil was similarly not fully residing in the Landmarc Building loft apartments at 520 Seneca St. during her first campaign against Frank Vescera four years ago. But, the difference in that case compared to Martin’s, Judge MacRae noted, is that McNeil pretty much had all the utilities in place and rehabilitation was nearly complete for her to consider that her fixed, permanent home. McNeil moved in several weeks later.

Martin’s plans remain unclear at this following the ruling.