The Geneva City Council held its regular monthly meeting Wednesday, September 2nd.. The meeting was held via Zoom due to the continuing social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it was announced at the meeting that the City is exploring ways to allow the Council to meet in person while also still broadcasting the meetings via Zoom for public participation. On Wednesday, due to the meetings time change to 5:30 P.M., the City’s normal broadcast partner Finger Lakes TV did not join the meeting live until 7:00 P.M. Consequently, the first hour and a half of the meeting was not seen on TV, but the City did provide live access via Zoom and the City’s YouTube Channel.
At the conclusion of Tuesday, September 1, 2020’s work session Mayor Steve Valentino said that he hoped that at Wednesday’s meeting the Council could move away from the Police Accountability Board (PAB) issue and get back to conducting regular business. The 5 hour and 10-minute contentious meeting could hardly be characterized as getting back to normal as the Council continued to fight amongst itself often. A great deal of the Council’s time was spent dealing with accusations of ethics violations by Councilor’s.
Geneva City Council battles over ethics violations at meeting
Valentino opened the meeting with proclamations declaring September 2, 2020, as No Place For Hate day in Geneva, and honoring Direct Support Professionals serving people with disabilities.
The meeting also saw 27 residents make public comments. Valentino stated that although people could be opinionated but had to remain respectful. Valentino also strictly enforced the 3-minute time limit on presentations. In addition, Valentino once again prohibited speakers from naming Councilor’s by name even when the speaker was referencing a specific action taken by a specific Councilor. When asked by Finger Lakes1 via email how he justified this restriction in light of free speech rights and the concept that public officials should take responsibility for their actions, Valentino responded that he was attempting to properly implement the provisions of Section 5(a) of the Rules and Procedures for Geneva City Council, which in part states “All remarks shall be addressed to the city council as a whole and not to any individual member thereof.”
The content of the public comment mirrored that of the previous several meetings with some residents both supporting and opposing the PAB, with many residents speaking out against the Council’s recent conduct and disfunction – including calling for the resignation of Frank Gaglianese, III (At-Large), and some calling for the firing of City Attorney Emil Bove, Jr. for what they termed his interference with the Council’s implementation of a PAB.
Councilor Ken Camera (Ward 4) presented a resolution to encourage the Police Chief and City Manager to enact a “Continuum of Force” approach similar to the one outlined by the National Institute of Justice. Camera argued that the Continuum approach was better because it provided for a simple to understand progressive approach to the use of force. Camera believed that Officers would understand the simpler approach better than the current 16-page complicated Use of Force Policy. Camera even suggested that the Continuum policy be laminated so that officers could carry it in their pocket as a reminder of the desired approach. Camera also argued that although the Council continued to work towards police reform, it was essential to implement this policy immediately to protect both officers and the public.
Some Councilors were concerned this resolution was worded merely as a recommendation rather than as an actual policy the Geneva Police Department would be required to implement. Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) was particularly concerned about the concept that the City Council does not have any control over the Police Department.
Councilor John Pruett (Ward 6) was concerned that this issue required more research before the Council could take any action. Pruett actually moved to table the resolution. Camera attempted to continue the discussion once the motion to table was made and Valentino called him out of order because discussions must end once there is a motion to table. Camera attempted to complain about the discussion being cut-off. But Valentino moved to a vote on the motion to table the resolution. The motion failed and discussion of the resolution continued.
Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2) also expressed concern that the resolution had not been researched enough. Pealer moved to change the resolution from encouraging the City Manager and Police Chief to implement the policy to having them “explore” the issue. Pealer also moved that the last paragraph of the resolution be eliminated entirely. After the motion was made there was a testy exchange between Valentino and Camera because Valentino ruled Camera out of order when he tried to seek clarification on the proposed amendment. Pealer’s motion did not get a second and died.
Salamendra also offered an amendment to have the continuum use of force policy worked on by a task force. City Manager Sage Gerling stated that she was not comfortable with the proposed process just being her and the Chief. At this point, Camera became frustrated with Gerling, telling her that she and the Chief could talk to anyone they wanted, contending that a task force was not necessary. Other Councilor’s expressed concern about why a task force was necessary.
Ultimately, the Council voted 4-5 to defeat the proposed task force amendment with Valentino casting the deciding vote. After the amendment vote, the Council did vote to approve the resolution, but during the vote Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large) told Camera to stop watching cop shows.
Gerling presented a resolution to approve implicit bias training for City staff. The goal of the training was to help staff identify their implicit biases and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviors. Gerling invited City Councilors to take part in the training, but Camera felt people already had their biases and felt that attending this training would be an unwelcome distraction given the Council’s current workload. Camera also asked if the police department would be required to take this training given that they have already gone through bias training. Gerling indicated that since the proposed training was different than the training the police department previously went through, the plan would be to have department staff take this new training. Gerling emphasized that this program was being offered to the City at no cost. The Council approved the resolution, and Gerling indicated that the goal was to have the training completed by March 2021.
The Council also considered a resolution to establish a public hearing regarding the sale of property located at 1 Mile Point. The resolution scheduled the hearing for the October regular Geneva City Council meeting. The 1 Mile Point property was put out for bid and the winning bid was at $125,000. The proposed purchaser was not planning on developing the property as it is connected with other property they already owned. After asking numerous questions about how the property would be assessed once it was returned to the tax rolls, the Council approved scheduling the public hearing.
Gerling also presented a resolution to install electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lot off of ScottLaFaro Drive behind the Ontario County Department of Motor Vehicles building. The project would be a 10-year partnership with the New York Power Authority. The only City cost for the project would be for promotional signage if the City elected to install them.
Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1) expressed support for the project. Burrall liked the proposed location of the charging stations and felt that this was a business-friendly project. However, he expressed concerns that non-electric vehicles would block electric vehicles from accessing the spots, particularly during high volume times such as Smith Opera House shows and events. Burrall was also concerned that residents may leave their cars in the lot overnight to charge. Burrall asked if these issues could be dealt with through enforcement action. Pealer suggested that if enforcement action were to be used to control parking in the electric vehicle charging spaces, an ordinance amendment would be needed. Gerling agreed with Pealer that an ordinance amendment would be needed. The resolution was approved.
In one of the stranger items of the evening, Gerling presented a non-action item presentation on the planned remediation of Genesee Park. Gerling stated that the remediation was recommended by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) because of extremely high levels of arsenic and lead in the soil. Gerling indicated that the contamination would require remediating a range of 6 to 24 inches of soil in various areas of the park. Gerling recommended proceeding with the remediation plan
However, many on the council sought to derail or slow the plan because they wanted to preserve the trees in the park. Burrall even went as far as to say that perhaps the City was creating a solution to a problem that really doesn’t exist as the levels of arsenic and lead in the soil may not pose any health risks given the property’s current and anticipated use. Valentino and Pealer countered that they felt it was important not to leave residents exposed to problems and that it was important not to expose the City to potential lawsuits. During the discussion Camera was upset and Noone’s perceived indication that those who want to save the trees do not care about City residents. Gerling indicated that she would get clarification on what the consequences would be of not undertaking the full remediation and of what the consequences would be of delaying the planned fall remediation to consider other options.
Several Councilor’s expressed concern that local Foundry residents should be involved in this process given the consequences they have already suffered from Foundry related contamination. Gerling indicated that she was planning a public forum and tour to explain the project at the park on Saturday, September 5, 2020, at 10:00 A.M.
The meeting adjourned at 10:50 P.M.
Todd covers local government in the Finger Lakes. He has a JD degree the Lincoln Law School of Sacramento. Send tips to [email protected].