The Geneva City Council held a “Special” City Council meeting Thursday, September 10th to consider a redrafted public law related to the proposed Police Accountability Board (PAB).
Despite New York Public Officers Law, Article 7, Section 104 (New York’s Open Meeting Law), which indicates that even when videoconferencing is used, the public is supposed to be notified in advance of the location of public meetings, the majority of the Council along with City Attorney Emil Bove, Jr. met in person at an undisclosed location. Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5), City Clerk Lori Guinan, City Manager Sage Gerling, and volunteer attorney Michael Bersani all attended via Zoom Conference call. The public and press could only attend the meeting by streaming it live on the City of Geneva’s YouTube Page.
The September 10, 2020, special council meeting also was not a shining example for public participation because the video feed employed by the City was often blurry, and the audio feed was often difficult to understand and occasionally utterly unintelligible. In particular, Counselors Jan Regan (Ward 3) and Frank Gaglianese, III (At-Large) were difficult to hear because of their location in relation to the microphone used. Even Salamendra commented occasionally that she could not understand comments from fellow Councilors. In addition, as has often been the case with public meetings held via video conference call and likely in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, those in the community who are deaf were completely shut out of the proceedings as there were no captioning or sign-language interpreter services provided.
The Council’s proceedings were also extremely difficult for the public and press to follow as the City did not publicly release the revised PAB public law proposal prior to the meeting. Consequently, the public and press were unable to follow along with the Council as they read the proposal and considered amendments to it.
Despite the fact that the Council had spent countless hours debating the PAB proposal, including three special work sessions dedicated to the PAB issue, had received substantial written and verbal public comment on the issue, and that all seemed to agree that it was highly unlikely that any proposed public law would get through the September 23, 2020, public hearing without significant amendments that would require an additional public hearing, the Council still spent another 2 hours and 30-minutes micro-analyzing the proposed draft and making additional amendments to it.
The only explanation of the proposed changes presented was a brief overview of those changes given by Bove. Among the changes explained by Bove were that:
- Anonymous complaints may be submitted
- Complaints must be in writing.
- Investigations must be done within 30 days unless an extension is granted by the City Manager.
- If criminal conduct is involved the case will be referred to the District Attorney,
- After the Geneva Police Department (GPD) completes its initial investigation, the Chief would send the investigation material to the PAB.
- The PAB would have the ability to do a complete supplementary investigation.
- After the PAB review, the results of that review along with any recommended discipline would be returned to the GPD Chief. Dissenting PAB member decisions would be documented.
- Within 10 days of the PAB decision, the GPD Chief would be required to make his final decision and prepare a written explanation of his decision, including an explanation of why he selected the imposed discipline if it differs from the PAB’s proposed discipline, and
- The PAB can recommend a discipline matrix.
Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2) offered numerous amendments to the proposal, including an amendment that once again inflamed the divisions amongst the Council, particularly the divisions between Pealer and Salamendra. Pealer initially questioned why law enforcement and their families were being excluded from the PAB. Pealer specifically referenced a provision that required a former law enforcement officer to wait three years from the date of their retirement before they would be eligible for PAB membership. Pealer questioned why there was not a corresponding requirement for a person who had been convicted of a felony. Salamendra thought this proposal was offensive. Pealer thought Salamendra was trying to read his mind. Salamendra argued that law enforcement should be excluded for three years because they were potentially biased given that they were a member of the profession being reviewed and were still active union members upon retirement. Pealer countered that those with felony convictions could be similarly biased given their negative interactions with law enforcement.
Pealer initially moved that a person with a felony conviction would not be eligible for PAB membership until three years past the end of his/her sentence completion. After heated discussions, Pealer changed his motion to strike the requirements that retired officers wait three years for PAB membership, thus making them eligible immediately upon retirement. Salamendra renewed her contention that the amendment was inappropriate because retired officers are still members of the law enforcement union upon retirement. Pealer’s motion was approved by the Council.
Although the remainder of the Council’s debate was not personal or controversial, it was long given the manner in which the Council micro-analyzed the proposal. The Council approved the following amendments:
- The GPD Chief would not make a recommendation regarding discipline with the initial investigation data transferred to the PAB. This was proposed by Regan and intended to encourage the PAB to look at the case with fresh eyes in a manner not biased by the Chief’s recommendation.
- The Council, at Regan’s urging, removed from the PAB’s responsibilities community outreach and education regarding law enforcement issues because these activities are already being done by other organizations.
- The Council approved having PAB Subpoenas signed by the PAB Chairman. This amendment was suggested by Pealer following a discussion of the legal issues surrounding the PAB issuing subpoenas. It was felt that this amendment would properly confer the Council’s subpoena authority to the PAB.
- The Council also approved a proposal by Pealer that formal complaint review could not occur without a signed complaint. In the discussion it was clarified that the complaint could be signed by anyone, including a member of the PAB. Salamendra voted no on the proposal as she thought it might eventually be used to impede the anonymity of those making complaints.
- At Councilor Tom Burrall’s (Ward 1) request the definition of immediate family was changed to include Aunts and Uncles.
- The Council also approved Councilor Ken Camera’s (Ward 4) proposal to provide that the PAB may employ a discipline matrix to use when recommending discipline subject to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and Civil Service Law.
- The Council also approved Mayor Steve Valentino’s proposal to include clergy back into the membership category list for PAB members.
- Finally, at Valentino’s urging, the Council increased the timeframes for selecting members to the initial PAB. The Council changed the proposal to allow the Council 90 days to make initial appointments and allotted the Geneva City Compact 60 days to make membership recommendations. These timeframes were increased because it was felt that the previous timeframes were too tight given current circumstances.
The Council unanimously approved going forward to the public hearing with the proposed public law as amended.
The meeting concluded by the Council asking Gerling to schedule the second legal presentation on the PAB for September 21, 2020. It was unclear if this session would be available to the public. The public hearing for the PAB public law remained scheduled for September 23, 2020.