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Tensions run high as divided city council begins week of work on police accountability in Geneva

The Geneva City Council met Monday, August 31st for a Council work session. In continuing its social distancing efforts due to COVID-19 the Council met via Zoom and distributed the meeting live via City’s YouTube channel. The Council work session focused on the proposed Public Law to establish a Police Accountability Board (PAB) and the associated Public Hearing.

Monday’s meeting was the first of the Council’s four scheduled meetings for the week. The Council was scheduled to hold work sessions on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday with its normal monthly Council meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

On the 31st, the Council took no official action and reached no conclusions regarding the PAB proposal. Rather the purpose of the meeting was to gauge where the Council stood on the proposal and to determine a plan the Council would follow for the remainder of the week’s scheduled work sessions and the remainder of the month leading up to the scheduled September 23, 2020, public hearing.

For the past year tensions have been building among the Council, and the PAB issue has added to the tensions among some councilors and City staff. Tensions remained high during the August 31st. meeting.

Mayor Steve Valentino thanked the community for the input provided on the PAB issue. Valentino opened the meeting by asking each Councilor what they felt the biggest issues were that still needed to be addressed.

Overall Councilors agreed that the two most important issues to address were the proposed Board’s investigative and disciplinary powers. But the Council remained split on how far those powers should extend. Some Councilors felt that the PAB should primarily be responsible for reviewing complaint investigations conducted by the Geneva Police Department and should only have the authority to recommend discipline. While others felt that the PAB should have full power to conduct their own investigations and have the power to impose discipline themselves.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

The Council also agreed that complainants’ names should be maintained confidential but that anonymous complaints should not be accepted.

Some Councilors indicated that they wanted to create a PAB law that withstands legal challenges and avoids expensive lawsuits.  Some Councilors also raised the importance of ensuring that the City had the financial resources available to pay for the proposal.

Councilmember Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) took a different approach arguing that the main goal should be to ensure that Genevans feel safe when making complaints against the Geneva Police Department. Salamendra also stated that the policy should ensure that Genevans are not harassed (as she believed currently happened) by the Geneva Police Department because of filing a complaint against an officer. Salamendra further contended that it should be the community’s needs, not the police union’s threat to sue, which should dictate how the City establishes a PAB.

In addition, as she has in the past, Salamendra took issue with City Attorney Emil Bove, Jr.’s legal approach to the proposed PAB. On Monday, Salamendra specifically called Bove out for failing to arrange for the second legal opinion from an outside Counsel as the Council had previously requested. Valentino agreed that the second legal opinion should be a priority and set it as an action item for he, Bove, and City Manager Sage Gerling to address. Bove and Gerling committed to ensuring that the second legal opinion would be obtained and presented as soon as possible.

Valentino also asked Councilors where they wanted to be on the project by the September 13th deadline to provide public notice for the public hearing scheduled for September 23, 2020.  Once again Councilors were split. Some Councilors wanted a fully legally sustainable public law proposal to present at the public hearing.  Others felt it was sufficient to have a draft law in place for the hearing with the understanding that it would be significantly amended after the public hearing, requiring additional public hearings in October and beyond.

The Council was also split on how the process within the Council should proceed.  Some Councilors called for the process of developing the public law proposal to be done by the full council in open and publicly accessible work sessions, while others called for smaller workgroups to work on specific issues and bring proposals back to the full council.

At one point the discussion got heated between William J. Pealer (Ward 2) and Salamendra. Pealer stated that he did not think it was fair to characterize the PAB proposal as being desired by “the people” because many were also opposing the proposal. Pealer also stated that he had not seen any evidence of Salamendra’s claim that the police harass complainants.  Pealer also stated that he did not think that the City would have a good relationship with the Geneva Police Department if there are continued allegations that the police harass complainants without documented evidence of that type of systemic problems Salamendra was alleging. Pealer specifically called on Salamendra to provide proof of her claims.

Salamendra responded that Pealer did not know about police complaints because people may not trust him enough to make him aware of their complaints. Salamendra specifically stated that it said a lot about Pealer that he had lived in Geneva all his life and had not heard any complaints before. Salamendra also felt that it was inappropriate that Pealer called on her to disclose data about police misconduct complaints. Salamendra also complained that the Council should not be concerned about the issue of the affordability of a PAB because the Council had been considering spending significant funds for economic development projects, including a marina revitalization project.

Pealer contended that the two funding issues were significantly different in that economic development projects were often paid for at least partially with grants and were designed to bring in revenue but that the PAB would have to be entirely funded by the City. Pealer did not respond to Salamendra’s claims that people did not trust him enough to share complaints with him, other than to say that he disagreed with everything she had said.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

Mayor Valentino concluded the meeting by stating that Tuesday, September 1, 2020’s work session would address the  Investigative authority issues of the proposed PAB and the membership makeup Board. Valentino also stated that Thursday, September 3, 2020’s meeting would address the disciplinary authority of the Board and the budget issues surrounding the PAB.

In other Geneva City Council news, the Council has released the agenda for Wednesday, September 2, 2020’s regular City Council meeting, which includes an ethics report by Mayor Steve Valentino, a proposed Resolution of Censure and Request for Resignation of Councilor-At-Large Frank L. Gaglianese presented by Councilors Jan Regan (Ward 3) and Ken Camera (Ward 4), and a proposed Resolution of Censure of Councilor Ken Camera presented by Mayor Steve Valentino.