The Geneva City Council held its regular monthly meeting Wednesday, November 5th. The meeting was streamed due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, and one of the most-controversial topics from the group’s last session was back on the agenda.
The meeting opened with Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1) requesting to amend the agenda to include a resolution to call on the City Manager to go back to City employee unions to seek a zero percent raise in 2021 in order to reverse the Council’s decision to lay off two probationary police officers. The motion to add the item to the agenda passed with only Ken Camera (Ward 4) and Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) voting against the motion.
The motion was not considered until later in the meeting. Instead, the Council moved from Burrall’s motions to public comment.Prior to hearing public comment, Mayor Steve Valentino indicated that the Council would be making changes to how it handles public comment in the future. Valentino indicated that the Council would no longer read written comments in open meetings. Instead, the City Clerk will forward all written public comment to Councilors as correspondence. In addition, the Council will be splitting public comment into two sections. The Council will consider in-person and Zoom public comments from City residents at the beginning of the meeting. Comments from non-city residents would be deferred to the end of each future Council meetings.
On Wednesday, the public comment was less than has been the recent norm for the Council. Roughly 15 individuals submitted public comment. The majority of the comments revolved around the Council’s decision to cut two probationary police officer positions from the Geneva Police Department (GPD). Those opposing the cuts continued to point to the public safety concerns associated with the cuts. But Wednesday, the majority of the commenters on the issue initially spoke to thank the Council for making the tough decision to cut the positions. However, after the Council voted to add Burrall’s resolution to the agenda, many of the people speaking live via Zoom amended their comments to call on the Council to reject the motion and maintain the layoffs. These individuals argued that the positions were not necessary because the GPD is overstaffed and that the money would be better spent on social service programs.
Once public comment closed, the Council moved to consider Burrall’s resolution. The Council took considerable time in debating this issue. Prior to the public meeting, the Council had held an Executive Session where they were apparently informed by City Manager Sage Gerling the Council 82 (The GPD Police Officers Union) had contacted the City regarding the potential of negotiating to accept a pay freeze for 2021 in order to keep the two police officer positions the Council cut in the 2021 Budget.
During the debate on the resolution, the Council remained split on the issue. Those Councilors supporting the motion argued that the proposal was consistent with the Council’s original agreement not to cut City staff. Those opposed to the resolution contended that the layoffs were necessary to save money for the City during a fiscal crisis. Some also felt that the Union had already been given an opportunity to accept a wage freeze and since they had rejected that prior offer, should now have to live with the results of their bad decision.
Salamendra was particularly adamant that the Council should not vote to rescind the layoffs because she felt that the Department was overstaffed compared to other Cities with 37 officers per every 10,000 residents. Salamendra specifically stated that while she thinks the money could be spent better, the budget issue was not why she voted to lay off the officers. Salamendra was more concerned with the Department’s overstaffing and overfunding. Salamendra went on to state that City staff should not be wasting time going back to the Unions on the salary issues which had already been resolved. Salamendra wanted staff to move on to other activities, such as meeting with the Public Defender’s Office regarding their offer to provide training to the Police Accountability Board (PAB). Salamendra felt that the City Manager was working for the Union and didn’t think it was fair for the Union to have “unlimited” negotiations. Salamendra did not want City staff to have any “wiggle room” in addressing the GPD officer layoffs.
Camera also expressed that he did not think the Council should be addressing this issue without the proposal being in writing with the estimated savings that could be achieved through this process. Camera did not like that the resolution was being done “on the fly” and felt that the proposals were a maneuver that “smells bad”.
Burrall reiterated that there had been no backroom deal and took offense at Salamendra’s assertion that the City manager was working for the Union, not the Council and City. Burrall also argued that the Council had never addressed the “right-sizing” of any City department during this budget process. He felt that the staffing issue that should be addressed separately, and reiterated that the Council had previously agreed to not layoff City staff through this process.
Although the discussion was less contentious than often occurs with the Geneva City Council, at various times during the discussion both sides accused the other of making backroom deals and of bringing 11th-hour proposals to reverse previous agreements and votes.
Ultimately, the Council approved Burrall’s resolution was amended to require that the City Manager limit this process to seeking a 0% pay raise in 2021 to refund the police officer positions. The resolution basically prohibited the City Manager from proposing to refund the positions via additional budget cuts. Burrall’s amended resolution passed with only Salamendra voting no. The next step in the process would be that Gerling will try to negotiate with each of the City Employee Unions to forgo salary increases in 2021. If that effort is successful, Gerling will then bring the issue back to Council for a vote to amend the 2021 Budget to reestablish the eliminated police officer positions. The Council hoped for this process to be completed by Thanksgiving.
In other business, the Council approved resolutions to establish public hearings for:
- A local law implementing the 2021 sewer rates,
- A proposal to abandon a non-functional water and sewer easement at 280 Hamilton Street,
- The sale of property located at 11 West Avenue, and
- The sale of property located at 163 Oak Street.
Each of these public hearings was scheduled for the December 2020 regular Council meeting.
The Council also unanimously approved the first reading of an Ordinance to implement the 2021 water rates. The Council will consider the second reading of this ordinance at the December 2020 Council meeting.
During Councilmember reports several Councilors used a portion of their time to call for more civility among the Council and in the Community. However, other Councilors, particularly Salamendra was concerned that the calls for civility from some Councilors were not genuine. In addition, Camera stated that those saying that the Council was an embarrassment should look at themselves as the Council was a reflection of the community at large.
The Council concluded the evening by scheduling a meeting for Thursday, November 12, 2020, at 5:30 P.M. to continue editing the proposed PAB public law.
Todd covers local government in the Finger Lakes. He has a JD degree the Lincoln Law School of Sacramento. Send tips to [email protected].