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Geneva City Council struggles to understand what police accountability board will cost

The Geneva City Council met for nearly 3 hours Tuesday for a work session regarding the proposed public law to establish a Police Accountability Board (PAB) in Geneva. Despite Mayor Steve Valentino’s assertions when the work sessions were established in January 2020 that the Council would not take up action items during work sessions, the Council held several votes Tuesday regarding modifications to the proposed PAB public law.

Seven council members along with City Manager Sage Gerling and City Attorney Emil Bove, Jr. met in person. Mayor Valentino, who is quarantining due to out of state travel, and Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) joined the meeting via Zoom Conference Call. The public was not able to attend the meeting in person, but the meeting was streamed live via the City’s YouTube Channel. However, the Council continued to not provide any closed captioning for members of the community who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Tuesday’s meeting was at times highly contentious with several disputes breaking out amongst various factions of the Council. Despite Valentino’s efforts to maintain order, the discussion was difficult to follow at times because of Councilors trying to speak over one another. In addition, the discussion was also occasionally difficult to follow because the Council was working from documents with recommendations regarding the PAB proposal that were not available to the public or media. Consequently, it was occasionally extremely difficult to figure out exactly what some of the proposed changes were because the listener could not put the snippets of conversation together with the overall context of all of the documents the Council was looking at.

The Council continued to struggle with not having an understanding of what the PAB would cost. The Council was even unable to come to a consensus on what training the PAB would cost. In addition, at one point City Manager Sage Gerling indicated that even City Staff had not undertaken any analysis of the potential costs associated with operating a PAB. Consequently, it would appear that neither the Council nor taxpayers had any way of determining the fiscal impact of having a PAB.

At the outset of the meeting, the Council held a lengthy discussion on the issue of having the public law go forward for a public referendum. Bove clarified that amendments being considered to the law, which would eliminate the Council giving up its authority on several issues associated with the law, would mean that the proposal would not be “mandated” to go out fora  referendum under the Home Rule Law. Councilor Ken Camera (Ward 4) supported the idea of making the changes necessary to avoid the need for a referendum.

Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2) and Councilor Frank Gaglianese (At-Large) supported the idea of taking the proposed PAB law out for a referendum. Pealer questioned why the Council would be afraid of a vote by the people on the issue. Gaglianese argued that a referendum was necessary because, at least in part due to COVID and the virtual nature of Council meetings, many citizens of Geneva had been unable to express their opinions on the PAB proposal and a referendum would allow them to do so. Salamendra opposed a referendum because it would be expensive and because the Council has already done the job of drafting and considering the PAB proposal. Salamendra also set the tone for much of the meeting by questioning why the Councilors who had previously opposed the proposed PAB public law were being allowed to slow the discussion down so long and called on the Council to get on with the meeting’s business of reviewing the proposed changes to the law.

Bove clarified that the Home Rule Law did have a section for a possible “permissive” referendum. Bove stated that the public could petition the Council for a permissive referendum, the Council would then consider that request and if the Council approved it, the law would then go out for a public referendum. However, Bove stated that if the Council denied the permissive referendum request, the petitioners would then have the option of filing a lawsuit and a judge would then determine if the Home Rule Law obligated the Council to go forward with a permissive referendum.

The Council considered changes to the PAB proposal on a section by section basis. Many of the changes made by the Council were routine word corrections, and capitalization or other grammar corrections. Some of the changes were also intended to create language consistency throughout the law.

The first point of contention arose when Pealer moved to remove the use of a disciplinary matrix from the proposal. However, his motion did not obtain a second from another Councilor so the proposal did not even get to a vote and failed.

The Council also debated the issue of whether felons should or should not be excluded from the PAB. Pealer indicated that the most common complaint he receives regarding the PAB was that felons could serve on the PAB but that relatives of law enforcement officers were excluded. Camera pointed out that even Grand Juries in New York under some circumstances permit former felons to serve on them.

Gerling indicated that Geneva Police Department Chief Michael Passalacqua had submitted comments arguing that the PAB should not be permitted to have members who have animosity towards the police. Passalacqua also argued that at least one member of the PAB should be a retired police officer. Councilor Jan Regan clarified that the Council could consider a person’s past criminal history and potential for bias during the appointment process.

Salamendra countered that she wanted the PAB to be entirely a citizen board. Salamendra was concerned that there appeared to be an effort to stack the PAB with professionals. Salamendra specifically stated that she felt Pealer was not trying to create an independent board but rather was moving to stack the board with people who were pro-police. At one point the discussion between Salamendra, Pealer, and others on the Council got so heated that Valentino had to call for order to regain control of the meeting.

Bove clarified for the council that it simply was simply not legal for them to exclude felons as a class. He reiterated that it would be necessary for the Council to consider a person’s past history and potential for bias during the application review process.

Pealer moved to modify the the proposed law’s language to provide that the Council would “endeavor” to have no more than one former law enforcement officer on the PAB. The stated intent of this proposal was to permit the Council to have more than one former law enforcement officer on the PAB if the circumstances warranted. The motion passed with Salamendra, Regan, and Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1) opposing the motion.

The Council also considered a modification to the appointment process language of the proposed law. The proposed change called for the Mayor and Geneva City Compact to merely nominate potential members of the PAB with the Council retaining the authority to actually make the appointments. The application process was also further defined as 1) reviewing applications, 2) interviewing potential appointees, 3) mayor and the Geneva City Compact making nominations/recommendations, and 4) the Council making formal appointments. The Council also clarified through discussion that they could accept recommendations from other parties in the community who wanted to recommend individuals to serve on the PAB. Although Pealer questioned the Geneva Community Compact’s involvement given previous questions about how the organization operated, the Council unanimously approved the proposed changes.

In other actions, the Council approved provisions to modify the term of the initial appointments to the PAB and to give the Council sole authority via a majority vote to remove members from the PAB. The Council also voted by a 6-3 vote to add language requested by the Geneva Police Officers’ Union to prohibit ex parte communications amongst the PAB. The ex parte communications provision was intended to ensure that discussions on all issues before the PAB occur only in an official public forum, not in private discussions. Only Camera, Salamendra, and Pealer voted no on the ex parte communication prohibition.

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

The Council next addressed the training provisions of the PAB law. It was moved to approve recommended modifications to the training provisions. This language included a recommendation for anti-racism training for the PAB. Pealer questioned the inclusion of anti-racism training because his research indicated that this was a new training. Pealer wanted to stick with just “implicit bias” training.

Salamendra questioned why people were offended by the idea of anti-racism training. Pealer interrupted Salamendra’s presentation. Salamendra responded by yelling “I’m talking, I’m talking Bill enough” to be heard over Pealer. Valentino called on Pealer to allow Salamendra to make her statement, but Pealer continued to try and interrupt. When Salamendra was able to continue, she called out Pealer stating “it’s unbelievably rude and disrespectful to me, and I have had it Councilor Pealer. When I’m talking, try not to talk”. Salamendra then made her point that some people in the community consider policing in Geneva racist and if the PAB is going to look at this issue, they need to be trained on it. Salamendra also argued that anti-racism training is not new but rather is as old as racism itself.

Despite Salamendra’s impassioned argument, it was moved and seconded to remove anti-racism training from the training language proposed in the original motion. The amendment failed and anti-racism training remained in the language that was ultimately passed by the Council.

The Council engaged in a lengthy discussion on a recommendation by Chief Passalacqua that PAB members attend the Citizens Police Academy.

Some Councilor’s argued that the Citizens Police Academy was an excellent training source for the PAB since the police officers conducting this training were experts in policing. Councilors also argued that this was a cost-effective means of training given that it was an existing program and would not require any expenses to create a new PAB specific training.

Others argued that this would create bias in favor of the police. Salamendra was particularly opposed to the proposal. Salamendra thought the Council was losing sight of the fact that the PAB was supposed to be an independent board. Salamendra contended that using the Citizens Police Academy for training would degrade the PAB’s independence by allowing relationships to develop between board members and the officers the PAB would eventually be called upon to review. Pealer countered that it was a ridiculous idea that having PAB members attend the Citizens Police Academy would bias the PAB in favor of the police or degrade the board’s independence.

Salamendra reiterated her support for using training offered by the Public Defender’s Office that she stated would be free for the City. Some councilors were concerned that the Public Defender’s training would also be biased because public defenders are charged with defending those accused of crimes. Salamendra countered that public defenders were unbiased lawyers and that having a lawyer train the PAB on law enforcement issues was much different than having an officer, who would potentially be subject to PAB review, conduct the training.

Councilors were also concerned that the Public Defender’s training or other similar training services might not be free or affordable, particularly in future years. Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large) went as far as to say that he wanted to get the information regarding the Public Defender’s training “from the horse’s mouth, not the horse’s behind”.

Salamendra openly asked if Noone’s “horse’s behind” comment was directed at her since she had provided the original information on the Public Defender’s training to the Council. Salamendra called on Noone to watch the cliches he used if his intent was to refer to another member of the Council as the “horse’s behind”. Noone later clarified, after Salamendra had left the meeting, that he did not intend to refer to anyone as a “horse’s behind” and that his only goal was to obtain information regarding the potential training opportunities directly from the Public Defender’s Office. Noone also acknowledged that his choice of words was poor.

After much discussion and animosity, the Council eventually approved a motion to approve language to require PAB members to attend the Citizens Police Academy within the first six months of appointment to the Board and attend other training recommended by the City Manager. Only Salamendra voted no.

Following the vote, Salamendra called on the meeting to be ended because it was beyond the scheduled 7:30 ending time and because the meeting seemed to be out of control. Salamendra’s motion was seconded but ultimately failed. Salamendra left the meeting without even waiting to vote on her own motion to adjourn.

Following the failed motion to adjourn the Council continued working through changes to section 15-6 of the proposed law. The Council approved several minor changes and approved requiring the PAB to provide its first report to the Council 12 months following the Board’s first meeting with annual updates thereafter.

After completing the review of section 15-6 of the law, the Council elected to adjourn and take up the remainder of the law at a separate work session scheduled for Tuesday, October 13th, 2020, at 6:00 P.M. Prior to adjourning the Council engaged in a confused and occasionally contentious discussion regarding having the Public Defender’s Office make a presentation about the training they can offer at a separate meeting. Ultimately, Valentino took an informal poll of the Council and there was sufficient support that Gerling agreed to make arrangements for the presentation.