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Disorganized, divided Geneva City Council ignores calls for councilor resignation and starts over on Police Accountability Board

On Wednesday the Geneva City Council held a 6 hour and 45 minute meeting. The meeting was broken up into two parts. The Council opened the evening with a special 1 hour and 45-minute public forum on the proposal for a Police Accountability Board (PAB). Following a 15 minute break, the Council moved to its regular agenda, which took 5 hours.

It was held via Zoom conference call due to COVID-19, which was broadcast live on Finger Lakes TV, and did not end until just after Midnight Thursday morning.

The meeting opened with an update on the Foundry project by City manager Sage Gerling, and a brief update from the Ontario County Board of Supervisors by Supervisor Greg Bendzlowicz. Gerling indicated that the complete Foundry update could be found at the City’s website http://cityofgenevany.com/. Among the matters Bendzlowicz spoke own, he cautioned City Councilors that while the Sheriff intends to continue assisting the Geneva Police department with calls when possible, due to expected budget constraints, the Sheriff’s Department would not be able to serve as a primary source of police services should the City decide to make cuts in the operations of the Geneva Police Department.


Following these presentations, Mayor Steve Valentino opened the meeting to public comment. 31 residents signed up for public comment and made presentations. Valentino attempted to place a 3-minute time limit on presentations, but that limit was ignored several times. Valentino took no action, other than imploring speakers to conclude timely, to enforce the time limit. In addition, despite Councilors’ public positions, Valentino prohibited speakers from naming individual Councilors specifically, even when speaking about actions taken by individual Councilors. The inability to refer to Councilors by name meant that the City Clerk and City Councilors reading written correspondence submitted by residents had to edit residents’ comments on the fly to avoid running afoul of the Mayor’s rule.

Following in the vein of the public forum, the Community remained divided and often distrustful of both one another and the Council. Some members of the public equated not agreeing to a PAB to being racist, while others took offense at the concept that merely not agreeing with a PAB made them racist. Others spoke of the systemic racism in law enforcement, while others spoke of the hardships and hard work of law enforcement personnel.

But the one common theme amongst most of the commenters was their displeasure at how the Council in general, and a couple of Councilors in particular, had been behaving. One resident referred to her displeasure at a Councilmember previously refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and of the Councilmember’s statements which she interpreted to mean the police department should be burned. Although the Councilmember in question was not named due to the Mayor’s prohibition on addressing individual Councilors, it is believed that the presenter was referring to Ward 5 Councilmember Laura Salamendra, who earlier this year was accused of writing on her Facebook page “Let it burn, let it burn, and let it burrnnnnn,” which many residents took as referring to burning the police department. Although Salamendra seemed to receive other complaints regarding her strong disapproval of the police department and appeared to be accused of trying to intimidate those opposed to the PAB and other police reforms, far more citizens spoke in opposition to a different Councilmember’s recent actions.

On July 18, 2020, Hobert & William Smith Colleges held a virtual event to discuss the PAB proposal and other potential police reforms. The following day, despite his supportive comments at the event, Councilor Frank Gaglianese III (At-Large) was caught on video at an event designed to support law enforcement saying that “…the College did their whole thing for police accountability. If I could have got a gun and shot the squares on my computer screen and killed everybody…disgusting.” The community has interpreted this as meaning that Gaglianese wanted to shoot and kill the roughly 80 individuals who attended the Hobart & William Smith virtual event on July 18, 2020. Gaglianese has not denied he made the statements and in fact, issued an apology for his comments.


However, Wednesday night the Community was not accepting Gaglianese’s apology. Although residents were prohibited from mentioning Gaglianese specifically, it was abundantly clear from their comments who they were addressing given that he is the only one accused of saying he wanted to get a gun and shoot event attendees. Many felt that not only did the comments show Gaglianese’s disdain for the individuals at the Hobart & William Smith event, but that his comments also had the potential to incite others to violence against supporters of police reform, particularly because of his standing in the community as a City Council member. Many residents called for Gaglianese’s immediate resignation from the Council. Residents even went as far as to say that the City could not begin to heal until Gaglianese resigns. One resident even went as far as to unmute himself towards the end of the meeting during Gaglianese’s presentation of a resolution and specifically called by name for Gaglianese to resign.

Despite the obvious concerns of the community regarding both Gaglianese and Salamendra’s conduct, neither Councilor addressed the issues. In addition, Mayor Valentino and the remainder of the Council seemed to completely ignore residents’ concerns given that they never specifically addressed the issues or even called for more civility. In fact, given the Mayor’s prohibition against naming specific Councilors for their actions during public presentations, some might reach the conclusion that the Council hopes the issue will go away, but residents made clear that they will not let the issues of perceived Councilor misconduct drop.

Residents also expressed dismay and disappointment at how the PAB proposal was handled between the July 1, 2020 and August 5, 2020 City Council meetings. Many felt that democracy had been shredded since they felt that a small minority of the Council and City Staff had thwarted the will of the Council’s original 5-4 vote by replacing the Peaceful People’s Protest version of the proposed PAB local law with a version developed behind closed doors by the Mayor, City Attorney, and City Manager. Many felt the new proposal lacked teeth because it removed all power from the PAB and many also felt the newly proposed PAB would become nothing more than a “rubber stamp” for the Geneva Police Department. Numerous residents went as far to call for the firing of both the City Attorney and City Manager.

Once the regular business portion of the meeting began, Ken Camera (Ward 4) attempted to open the discussions on police reform by reintroducing his resolution entitled “Establishing 1st Step Police Department Reforms for a Better Geneva Community for All”. However, this resolution had previously been tabled by the Council and Camera was unable to obtain the required support (Motion and Second) from the remainder of the Council for its reconsideration. Consequently, no action was taken on this resolution.


In terms of police reform, the Council next considered by-laws for the approved Police Department Body Camera Policy Task Force and the Police Budget Review Task Force. Several Councilors, including Jan Regan (Ward 3), Salamendra, and John Pruett (Ward 6) expressed concern that the by-laws were drafted by a Councilor (Anthony Noone – At Large) who voted in opposition to both boards. Regan stated that she believed that the intent of transparency was ignored completely in the proposed Bylaws. She asked that the Council step back and involve more people with creating the Bylaws. Pruett stated that he, Salamendra, and Regan had all volunteered to be involved in the drafting process but hadn’t been included.

Camera attempted to seek clarification of what the purpose of the Bodycam task for was. Valentino attempted to side-step the question by indicated the purpose of the task force would be determined by the Bylaws. When pressed by Camera in a somewhat testy exchange Valentino cut-off discussion on the issue by initially appointing a committee of Noone, Pruett, and Regan to redraft the Bodycam Task Force Bylaws for the Council’s consideration at a later date. Valentino initially refused to appoint Salamendra to the Committee stating that he felt she had a conflict of interest on the issue. However, he refused to tell Salamendra, the Council, or state for the record what he believed Salamendra’s conflict of interest was. After a contentious exchange between Valentino and Salamendra, Valentino stated that he had reconsidered his position and appointed Salamendra to the Committee, but he still declined to state why he initially felt she had a conflict of interest that prohibited her participation in the process.

Valentino also appointed Noone, Pruett, Regan, and Assistant City Manager Adam Blowers to a committee to draft the Bylaws for the Police Budget Review Task Force.

The Council also considered a proposal from City Manager Sage Gerling to establish a Geneva Police Reform Consultation Plan to comply with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order regarding police reform. Initially, Gerling had drafted and presented a resolution for the Council’s consideration, but after discussion, the Council and staff determined that a formal resolution was not necessary. Instead, Gerling simply asked for the Council’s suggestions and direction on the project. Gerling stated that she considered both the community and the Council’s criticism regarding the perceived lack of transparency on police reform when preparing the proposal. Gerling hoped the consultation plan would able to address the concerns and criticisms raised by the community and Council. Gerling also stated that she intends to add a police reform section to the City’s website, but asked for patience as it would take time to accomplish the task due to staffing issues.

The Council generally praised the proposed consultation plan stating that it appeared to loop in all potential stakeholders. The Council, particularly Mayor Valentino felt the proposal had been a long time coming. Tom Burrall (Ward 1) suggested that the City host public forums in each Council Ward to present the consultation plan to city residents and obtain their input. Gerling agreed that such forums would be beneficial, but asked for Councilors’ assistance in making these forums possible.


At this point, Camera pushed the Council and City Manager to consider implement interim policies on police reforms, such as revising the Geneva Police Department’s Use of Force policy to ensure a continuum approach. Camera believed that a temporary policy controlling the use of force by officers would help prevent problems before they occurred. Noone indicated that the Council previously tabled similar proposals because the City Attorney had declared that the Council did not have the legal authority to dictate the police department’s use of force policy. Camera vehemently disagreed with this assertion citing provisions of the City Charter. Camera was so upset at the roadblocks to progress being erected that he renewed his threat from Monday (August 3, 2020) evening’s Council work session to draft and sponsor resolutions seeking the termination of the City Attorney and City Manager. Ultimately, the Council did not take up Camera’s calls for a temporary policy to be put in place while the overall police reform process takes place.

The final police reform measure considered by the Council on Wednesday was a resolution to reschedule the PAB public law public hearing. This discussion began with a presentation from City Attorney Emil Bove, Jr. Bove stated that the proposed local law he drafted was intended to serve as a placeholder. Bove argued that not holding a public hearing Wednesday did not delay the process of approving a PAB because the Council anticipated making significant changes that would have required another public hearing in September anyway. Bove further stated that the proposal he presented was a statewide local law that has not been overturned by any judge. Bove also contended that the original proposal drafted by the Peaceful People’s Protest had significant legal issues. He also seemed to contend that it would be easier to amend his “bare bone’s” draft than the original proposed local law because it would be easier to add provisions rather than remove provisions.

Pealer and Burrall moved and seconded the proposed resolution so that the matter could be discussed by the Council. This issue generated significant discussion amongst the Council. S

Pealer suggested that the discussions on the issue be continued since the meeting had run six hours by that point. He thought moving the topic to a special meeting the following week might produce a more clearheaded discussion. Camera said doing so would create more delay, which is a concern, but that he also wanted to take time to consider the  City Attorney comments, wanted to consider what he termed the abridgment of democracy that had been taking place, and wanted to discuss the ability of the Council to remove the City Manager and City Attorney. Before ending his comments there was a brief testy exchange between Camera and Valentino regarding how the process of replacing the original proposed public law with Bove’s recommended alternative had occurred.

Regan stated that she was frustrated to hear the City Attorney refer to his proposal as a placeholder given that the original proposal was also a placeholder. Regan also asked if there was any possibility of putting forth both the City Attorney’s proposal and the original public law proposed. Bove stated it would need to be a second resolution and a new local law. Camera felt it would be better to capture both in one resolution because both have some good provisions which could be melded together.

Salamendra wondered aloud why this issue would go any differently this time than it did las month. Salamendra also asked if the Council was merely going forward with a placeholder why it had to be Bove’s proposal and why the original proposal could not be used. Camera agreed and also thought reverting to the original proposed local law as the placeholder would go a long way towards repairing some damage done with the community. He once again called for the two proposals to be combined together into one proposed law that was color-coded to show the differences. Bove said it would be difficult to put together a new document combining the two laws within a couple of days.


Salamendra also suggested that the Council should hear from the other 20+ public forum participants who were unable to speak Wednesday before going to much further. Salamendra moved to use the original public law proposal put forth in the original resolution approved in July. Bove recommended changing to a new local law designation if the existing resolution was going to be amended. Despite Salamendra’s clear motion, Mayor Valentino did not initially act on it and the discussion continued.

Noone raised the issue that there were contradictions in the original proposed local law and asked Bove why the Council would go forward with a proposal that the City Attorney had already analyzed as legally questionable. Bove did not answer the question directly but instead said the Council should now just start the process, and once that was done the City would hear from the unions, Police Chief, etc. Burrall asked if given his lack of expertise in this area if the Council should also have advice from a specialist in the field. Bove conceded that would be beneficial.

After significant additional back and forth regarding what should be done and the procedure for doing so, Mayor Valentino finally addressed the amendment initially proposed by Salamendra. The Council’s disorganization continued during the vote to proceed with the original July public law language when Pruett was disconnected from the Zoom call prior to casting his vote on the amendment. Pruett’s vote was essential as the vote was tied 4-4. The Council had to wait a significant amount of time and could not go forward with any additional business until Pruett was able to reconnect to the meeting, at which paint he tipped the balance and the amendment was approved by a 5-4 vote. During the time the Council waited on Pruett, Valentino and Salamendra got into a dispute over comments made earlier regarding the length of the meeting and proceeding despite the late hour.

Next Regan proposed changing the date of the public hearing to give everyone more time to get the process right this time. Mayor Valentino moved to change the hearing date to September 23, 2020. The date amendment was approved unanimously.

Finally, the overall resolution approved, but in yet another twist after it was approved, Bove insisted on another vote to change the proposed local law designation to Local Law 2-2020. This motion was also approved unanimously.

Overall, the Council’s refusal to address Councilor misconduct issues and how the Council has handled the police reform issues showed the deep divisions among the Council itself and with City staff and served to highlight the disorganization of the Council’s operation.


In other business, the Council also approved resolutions designating the City as the lead agency for the Marsh Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Improvements Project and declaring that the project had no significant environmental impact.

In addition, Camera resurrected his resolution seeking to terminate the marina project. Camera believed that the project was no longer viable because other area marina’s are having difficulty filling their slips. Camera also believed that the project would not be financially successful because the City would need to charge too high of a fee to break even, which would just keep boaters at other local marina’s since they are lowering prices because of the desperate need to fill their boat slips. Camera also argued that the City would be unable to maintain a new marina properly, citing the current condition of the current docks on Seneca lake, and contended that the City could achieve significant cost savings by ending the project now.

Other Councilor’s quested whether the project would change the characteristics of the current free lakefront access, questioned why a new marina was needed, and Salamendra even suggested using City money for a marina was an irresponsible use of City resources given the need for funding social programs.

Many Councilor’s also supported the proposal stating it had a significant economic upside for the Community. Valentino in particular pointed to support form the Geneva Busines Improvement District (BID) who believed a new marina would be an economic boom for the City. Finally, some councilor’s didn’t see any harm in going forward with the project at least through the bidding process as receiving bids would give the City more information about the actual economic viability of the project.

After a roughly 30 minute spirited, and at times contentious, debate on the issue, Valentino attempted to end the discussion by calling for a vote, but Regan instead moved to table the proposal entirely. Regan’s motion to table was approved by a split vote.

The Council also approved resolutions calling for sending a letter to Congress supporting increased funds to municipalities due to COVID-19, and recognizing first responders work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Council also appointed three new members to the Human Rights Commission despite some questions as to whether one appointee was actually eligible for appointment because they lived outside of the City.

The meeting was adjourned at 12:02 A.M. Thursday, August 6, 2020.



 

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