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Geneva City Council fights through another PAB work session

On Thursday Geneva City Council met for what some believed would be the final Council work session on the proposed Police Accountability Board (PAB) Law.

Instead, the meeting showed that the Council is far from being close to taking the proposed law out to a second public hearing. In fact, some observers of Thursday’s meeting may be left wondering if the personal relationships between Councilors have deteriorated to the point where hope is lost on working out an effective compromise.

Mayor Steve Valentino tried to exert strict control over the proceedings by not allowing any motion for amending the PAB unless it was presented by a member of the prevailing side that originally enacted the provision. Most on the Council were confused by Valentino’s application of this rule, and some seem to see it as obstructionism. Despite wanting to employ this rule strictly, several times Valentino was unprepared and did not have available the votes from previous Council meetings to determine who was in fact on the prevailing side. Valentino attempted to delay discussion of some proposals until a future meeting so that he could research minutes of previous meetings to determine the prevailing Councilors who would be permitted to bring proposed amendments.

Several times during the debate on the evening’s issues, Valentino and Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) got into heated arguments. At one point both seemed to acknowledge that they were tired of each other. Valentino objected to what he characterized as Salamendra’s constant interruptions. Salamendra objected to Valentino ignoring her motions and being unable to present her positions on issues without interruption.

At one point, Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2) became frustrated at what he termed as bullying and strong-arm tactics used by those who had lost on previous motions to have motions reintroduced. Several Councilors, including Salamendra, took exception to Pealer’s comments. While Salamendra was attempting to respond to Pealer’s accusations, Valentino called Salamendra out of order. Valentino called upon Salamendra to make her point without attacking specific individuals. Salamendra questioned why Valentino called her out of order but did not call out Pealer for his accusations. Valentino responded that Pealer did not name specific individuals.

The discussion deteriorated to the point that Salamendra accused Valentino of only wanting to accept motions from men only. Valentino took exception to the comment and the comment also elicited disbelief from Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large). By the time the meeting was winding down, Valentino would not even directly answer some questions posed by Salamendra.

In addition, Councilor Ken Camera (Ward 4), as he has been prone to do in the past, occasionally rambled aimlessly in his presentations. However, Thursday Camera’s presentations seemed to be wearing thin on Valentino. At one point, Valentino stated that he wanted to know where Camera was going with his discussion. Camera responded that he was going to explain it and Valentino responded “I’m afraid of that explanation”. In addition, Camera continued his propensity to use examples from his life that he believed showed how the PAB should work. At this week’s meeting, he continued to try and get the Council to accept that the PAB’s membership requirements should mirror that of the Ontario County Grand Jury, which he is currently serving on.

Substantively the Council continued to rehash the same subject matters that have been the sticking points on the PAB from the beginning, PAB access to Geneva Police Department (GPD) body camera footage, membership on the PAB, and PAB member training requirements. The Council debated these issues for nearly 2 ½ hours Thursday. Despite all of the previous meetings and the lengthy debate Thursday, the Council still had to schedule another work session to consider potential additional debate on PAB issues. Valentino even indicated that at the next meeting the Council would start over and go through the law completely again.

Buried in all of the personal hostility and political gamesmanship, the Council only made two substantial amendments to the proposed PAB public law. First, the Council  provided the PAB with access to GPD body camera footage for investigation of active complaints and for “…repetitive related previous complaints that may have policy implications and such access shall not be unreasonably withheld.”  In addition, on a split vote, the Council approved removing the Citizens Police Academy as required training for PAB members.

In what proved to be one of the stranger occurrences of the night the Council rejected a proposal to prohibit current and former police officers and their families from serving on the PAB. Valentino initially tried to defer discussion on this issue because it was raised by Councilor Jan Regan (Ward 3) and he could not ascertain whether or not she was on the original prevailing side. Eventually, it was determined Regan was not on the prevailing side. She tried to state her proposed compromise to the issue, but Valentino cut her off stating he preferred to wait for a separate meeting giving her and others time to work through discussions and come back with concrete proposals. However, Camera moved to strike the word “endeavor” from Section 15-3(1)(c) of the law, which would then limit the PAB to having only one police officer. Camera was determined to be on the original prevailing side, and the motion ultimately carried.

But later Councilor John Pruett (Ward 6) raised the issue again and moved to eliminate section 15-3(1)(c) entirely. Pruett made this motion despite the fact that earlier in the meeting Camera had withdrawn a similar motion because of concerns that removing this section would remove any limits on law enforcement membership. Consequently, Camera and others felt that removing the section would allow the PAB to be stacked with members from the law enforcement community. During the discussion on Pruett’s initial motion, Regan moved to table the issue, but her motion failed. Pruett then moved to amend his own motion to instead change section 15-3(1)(c) of the law to prohibit any current or former law enforcement officers or their families from serving on the PAB.

The Council then took two votes. The first vote was to decide whether or not to accept Pruett’s amendment. The Council approved Pruett’s amendment on a 5-4 vote. Then the Council had to vote on whether or not to accept Pruett’s motion as amended. Since Pruett’s amendment was a complete rewrite of the original motion the Council was essentially voting on the amended language a second time. However, during the roll call vote, Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1) interrupted the vote to rehash the issue of what the benefit would be of having a police officer on the PAB. City Manager Sage Gerling spoke of how an officer could provide insight to the PAB on how police agencies operate. Salamendra countered that having officers on the PAB would delegitimize the body. Burrall had voted to approve Pruett’s amendment, but he changed his vote on the overall motion and voted against it. Consequently, the Council rejected Pruett’s motion on a 4-5 vote, with Burrall ultimately being the deciding vote.

The only other issue the Council tried to address Thursday was a proposal by Camera that the PAB membership qualifications mirror those used by the Ontario County Grand Jury. Camera moved to require that all members be U.S. Citizens, be able to read and write English, and not have a felony conviction. Regan and Salamendra raised the issue that the Council had previously heard from Legal Counsel that the Council was legally prohibited from excluding former felons from board memberships.

Camera did recall this discussion and tried to restate his motion to eliminate the clause that members not have any felony convictions. However, Valentino insisted on following formal procedures and required that Camera’s motion go through a formal amendment process. Ultimately, the motion to amend Camera’s motion passed. The Council then voted on Camera’s amended motion to require that PAB members be U.S. Citizens and be able to read and write English. There seemed to be some confusion during the vote regarding exactly what was being voted on, but eventually the motion failed.

The Council is next scheduled to meet for yet another PAB work session on November 30, 2020. The Council also has a regular December Council meeting scheduled for December 2, 2020.