The Geneva City Council met Wednesday for its regular monthly meeting. The meeting was held via WebEx Conference call due to the continuing COVID-19 crisis and was simulcast on the City’s YouTube Channel and Finger Lakes Television. The meeting lasted nearly 4 hours and in a nod towards public access, the Council revisited several agenda items from the May agenda which were handled after the public was no longer able to view the meeting because Finger Lakes Television had terminated their broadcast of the meeting due to the fact that they are only contracted to broadcast 3 hours of each meeting. Despite this contractual agreement, Wednesday Finger Lakes Television elected to stay live for the entire 4-hour meeting.
The meeting opened with a public comment session. Public comment has typically been a major part of Geneva City Council meetings but has been slightly reduced since the Council has had to switch to online conference calls due to COVID-19. However, Wednesday’s public comment was robust with approximately 16 people speaking. The vast majority of speakers presented regarding the recent protests in Geneva related to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25, 2020.
All of those who spoke regarding the protest, supported the protests and protesters, but they also raised issues specific to Geneva. Some speakers felt that the City’s warning issued Sunday May 31, 2020 calling on residents to remain home for their safety, sent the wrong message and was an attempt to squelch the protests and automatically assumed that protesters would be violent. Following public comments City Manager Sage Gerling apologized for the tone of the message and indicated that she was not trying to reduce the protests in any way. Gerling clarified that the City did not have concerns regarding local protesters but had received reports that outside forces planned to come into Geneva to loot and cause problems. The City was concerned these outside forces would cause violence endangering City residents. However, both Gerling and Mayor Steve Valentino pledged to be more careful regarding how any future necessary notices are worded.
The other major theme from the commenters was that Geneva needed to implement some sort of independent police review board. Although most commenters felt that the Geneva Police Department is currently doing a pretty good, all felt that changes in how police actions are reviewed are necessary. Specifically, commenters urged the council to create an independent review board, that the police disclose their use of force policy and ensure that it is fair and justified, work to deescalate situations rather than automatically use force, and develop a body camera policy that requires use of body cameras by all officers at all times. Commenters also thought that body camera footage should be reviewed proactively on a regular basis rather than just when an incident occurred.
Residents can view the Geneva Police Departments current Use of Force Policy at http://cityofgenevany.com/police-department/.
Although Council members did not address the proposals during the business portion of the meeting, during their Councilmember reports at the end of the meeting, the Council seemed to be strongly supportive of the goals of the protests and of the proposals made during public comment. Councilors were particularly complimentary of how the protests remained peaceful and of how the police department and Chief Michael Passalacqua responded to the protests.
Following the public comment portion of the meeting the Council held a public hearing regarding plans to apply for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to assist CCMI, Inc. and Assured Edge Solutions (AES) with their expansion efforts in the Geneva area. No residents asked to speak at the public hearing and it was closed.
Mayor Valentino opened the Council’s regular work by announcing that he had issued a proclamation declaring June Geneva’s 6th annual Pride Month in honor of the region’s LGBTQ+ community. Valentino stated that although the Pride Festival would not go on in-person as normal because of COVID-19 he hoped the community would still find ways to support Pride Month in the Finger Lakes.
Councilmember Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) introduced the first reading of proposed Geneva City Ordinance #2-2020 which proposed permitting the keeping of chickens in the City. The proposed ordinance authorized the keeping of 1 chicken for every 1000 square feet of land on a City residential parcel. The ordinance required that the chickens be maintained in an appropriate cage/coop and required at least 10 square feet of fenced area per chicken for the chickens to be able to move around in. The ordinance also required that each resident wishing to keep chickens go through a permit process and pay a $10 license fee.
Salamendra stated that the ordinance should be approved because allowing chickens is a good tool for addressing food insecurity in the City. Salamendra also pointed out that the consultant who prepared the City’s Comprehensive Plan recommended that the current ban on chickens in the City be lifted. Finally, Salamendra argued that residents should have a “right” to keep chickens.
During the public comment period several City residents echoed support for the ordinance. In addition, Councilmember John Pruett (Ward 6) also supported the ordinance asserting that keeping chickens would not be any more detrimental than any other animals that City residents are already permitted to maintain on their property. Pruett also stated that he felt this was an issue of personal freedom. Councilmember Tom Burrall (Ward 1) also supported the proposal stating that there had been no known problems with the 5-year pilot project of keeping 160-180 chickens on State Street. Burrall did clarify that he thought the ordinance should be tightened to ensure that chickens were not kept on rooftops or anywhere above ground level.
Despite this support, the proposed ordinance turned out to be quite controversial and led to an extended debate of the issue.
Councilmember Jan Regan indicated that her research showed that those opposed to the ordinance did not have any experience keeping chickens, while those who support the proposal did have experience keeping chickens. Regan expressed concern that the ordinance did not properly limit chickens to back or side yards and questioned whether the $10 licensing fee was the appropriate amount to be charging.
Councilmembers William Pealer (Ward 2), Ken Camera (Ward 4), Frank Gaglianese III (At-Large)), Anthony Noone (At-Large), and Mayor Valentino all expressed opposition to the ordinance as currently drafted.
Among the issues raised by those opposed to the ordinance was that they had heard a lot of opposition to the proposal from City residents. There was also significant concern regarding health and safety issues. Pealer pointed to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) finding that backyard chickens are a leading cause of Salmonella outbreaks. Councilmembers Camera and Noone indicated that they were concerned that the City’s current code enforcement process is inadequate to deal with regulating residential chicken keeping.
But some of the most vocal opposition came from Councilmember Gaglianese, who stated that he was offended that the Council was considering this resolution. He felt that the Council was trying to rush the proposal through “in the middle of the night” and thought it should be delayed until residents could express their opinions on the subject at an in-person council meeting. He felt that this was important because many residents may be put-off by appearing via conference calls because they are not tech-savvy. Gaglianese also did not believe that anything had changed since the last time the Council rejected this proposal. At one point the debate got so heated that Gaglianese became offended by Salamendra’s facial expression towards his opposition. Salamendra was called out of order by Mayor Valentino for interrupting Gaglianese to protest his comments regarding her facial expression. Later Salamendra accused Gaglianese of being “misogynistic” (strongly prejudiced against women) for his offense at her facial expression.
When it became clear that the Council was extremely divided on this issue and that there were not sufficient votes to approve this proposal as drafted Councilmember Regan moved to table the ordinance proposal. Councilmember Noone seconded Regan’s motion, and the motion to table was approved.
Wednesday Mayor Valentino announced that the Geneva Ethics Committee had sanctioned both Councilmember Pealer and Councilmember Camera. Pealer was cited for interrupting a speaker during the January Council meeting. The ethics committee recommended that Pealer be more careful in his interactions in public meetings.
Camera was cited for copying emails with independent journalist Jim Meaney to a reporter at the Finger Lakes Times. The Ethics Committee found that Camera violated Tenet 3 (Conduct of Public Officials) of the Code of Ethics. Camera promised to make amends by apologizing both in-person and at an open Council meeting. Camera did apologize Wednesday night for his conduct and promised to apologize in-person to Meaney the next time he sees him.
The first resolution considered by the Council Wednesday was resolution 16-2020. Resolution 16-2020 authorized the City Manager to contract with the law firm of Hancock Estabrook LLP as special legal counsel to the City. Under the contract, the City would pay $250 per hour for Partner and Of Counsel services, $185 per hour for Associate services, and $120 per hour for Paralegal services.
Councilmember Camera recommended that the contract be brought to the Council annually for reauthorization. Based on Camera’s recommendation Mayor Valentino, City Manager Gerling, and City Attorney Emil Bove all concurred that the special counsel contract would be brought to the Council annually for review, likely as part of the annual reauthorization of the City Attorney contract.
Councilmember Regan questioned why this contract was needed. She felt that the City would be better served to hire a special counsel with subject matter expertise when they were needed for specific matters rather than having a single-sourced special counsel.
The resolution was approved with only Regan dissenting.
The Council also considered three resolutions related to the $1.8 million dollar grant funding awarded to the City by the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC). The grant is for green infrastructure planned and designed as part of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Gerling stated that samples of the projects being implemented through this funding are the landscaped medians on Route 5&20, and the project to collect and clean stormwater before it enters Seneca Lake.
The Council considered resolutions 17-2020 which authorized acceptance of the $1.8 million grant and 18-2020 which authorized the expenditure of the local match funds required under the grant as a block. Gerling also advised the Council that the local match funds were coming from funds already received from the State for this purpose. The third resolution (19-2020) designated the project as a Type 2 project under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) not requiring an environmental quality review. All three resolutions passed.
The Council also revisited the long-standing issue of problems associated with the Ontario County Landfill. Resolution 22-2020 proposed seeking compensation for the damage sustained by the City from the constant odors coming from the landfill and the persistent truck traffic traveling through the City because of the landfill. The resolution recognized that 946 complaints have been lodged regarding the landfill between March 2019 and April 2020.
After discussion, it was decided that the resolution would be sent directly to Ontario County. Councilmember Pruett moved to amend the resolution to specifically ask for $1.5 Million in compensation for the damages the City has sustained. The amendment and the resolution were both passed without objection.
Resolution 23-2020 proposed allowing the City manager to execute a lease with BluePrint Geneva to operate a public garden on City-owned property located on Crystal Street. No city resources would be expended for the gardens and the City retained the right to terminate the lease for any reason, thus keeping the property available for development should opportunities arise. While at the May Council meeting some concerns had been raised about whether or not this property had environmental issues that would make it unsuitable for gardening, at Wednesday’s meeting the resolution was approved without debate or dissent.
The Council also approved a resolution to schedule a public hearing for July 1, 2020, at 7:00 P.M. to hear public comment regarding the City’s plans to apply for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for such projects as infrastructure, community planning, microenterprise assistance, housing, and small business and economic development.
The final resolution approved by the Council Wednesday classified the Marsh Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Improvement Project as a Type 1 action under SEQRA and designated the City as the entity that would conduct the environmental review. The only discussion on this item came from Councilmember Camera who hoped the City would be “very creative” in asking the Town to bear the bulk of the cost of this project since that is where the majority of the expansion in the area is occurring.
The Council also approved the appointment of Dana Hollenbeck to the Local Development Corporation and the reappointment of Michael McWilliams to the Recreation Advisory Board.
The Geneva City Council is next scheduled to meet on July 1, 2020.