Geneva City Council met for well over 6 hours this week in a pair of sessions. The first was a ‘work session’, which was held on Monday, and the second was a full-meeting held Wednesday. Despite there being no major conflicts during Council’s regularly January meeting – the session still lasted over four-and-a-half hours.
Mayor Steve Valentino opened Monday’s work session by offering the Councilor’s an opportunity to have an open discussion regarding any issues they wanted to raise. Councilor John Pruett (Ward 6) opened the evening by discussing communications. Pruett raised issues with both the Council’s internal communications and the City’s communications with residents.
Pruett stated that he had been embarrassed for the Council during the past year because of the conflicts and personal attacks. Many on the Council agreed and called for each other to focus more on the issues rather than the individuals who raised them. Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) however indicated that she would not tolerate what she perceives to be personal attacks, even if it would “undo” the Council. Salamendra stated that she thought the male members of the Council had been sexist and specifically could out Councilor Frank Gaglianese for trying to make her look as if she was an “erratic woman”. Despite Salamendra’s concerns, the Council got through Monday’s meetings with remarkably little personal conflicts, and through Wednesday’s meeting with virtually no personal conflicts at all.
The Council agreed that the City needed to improve its communications with City residents. One of the major concerns expressed by Councilors was the perceived difficulty of accessing information on the City’s website. Many felt it was extremely difficult for residents to locate information on the website that they needed. Councilors also felt that the City should consider additional approaches such as op-eds, electronic signage, direct mail, etc. as ways to keep residents informed about issues in the City. The Council decided to establish a small committee to work on communications issues. The Committee consists of Salamendra, Councilor Jan Regan (Ward 3), and Councilor William Pealer, Jr. (Ward 2).
During the work session, Councilor’s also discussed economic development concerns. Pruett expressed concerns that he does not believe the current property tax base is sufficient to meet the City’s budget needs. Pruett also questioned whether or not the City has enough developable land to ever create enough property tax revenue to address the City’s income needs. Consequently, he called on the Council to consider such activities as Government “right-sizing”, consider seeking a merger with the Town of Geneva, legally challenging non-profit property tax exemptions, seeking additional revenue contributions from the State and County, address employee benefit issues, and address the City’s debt. Pruett stressed that his ideas were only discussion starters that he hoped would lead to starting the conversation towards developing long-term solutions that would balance Geneva’s income and expenses.
The Council also engaged in a lengthy discussion of whether or not the Council should consider backing out of the Marina development project. Some felt the project should go forward because of the importance of economic development and because the project had been in place for years. While others felt it was entirely reasonable to consider scrapping the project because of the changed economic circumstances.
Although the Council did not develop any firm direction on economic development issues Monday, almost all Councilor’s agreed economic development and tax issues should be one of the Council’s priorities in the upcoming year.
Wednesday’s Council meeting saw Mayor Steve Valentino read an extensive complaint decision issued by the Geneva Board of Ethics. The Board had considered three ethics violation complaints against Councilor Laura Salamendra alleging that Salamendra:
- Created a hostile work environment by making 24 Facebook posts in her capacity as a Councilor that used inflammatory and degrading language towards City government colleagues and Ontario County Sheriff Kevin Henderson,
- During a City Council Meeting, improperly divulged the name of a New York State Parole Officer involved in an officer-involved shooting; and
- Engaged in impermissible conduct during a November 14, 2020 protest in Canandaigua New York. The Board alleged that Salamendra actively participated in a rally displaying signs reading “Parole Officers are Pigs To” and “You’re about to lose your job, Jeff Smith”. The Board also alleged that Salamendra led the crowd in chants in support of Chanel Hines, making “unsubstantiated statements that there were racist and transphobic motivations involved” in the shooting incident.
The Board concluded that during the course of these three incidents Salamendra violated Tenets 1, 3, 5, 10, 11, 12, and 16 of the Code of Ethics. The Board concluded multiple violations of some Tenets and recommended Censure for allegedly improperly disclosing the identity of the parole officer involved in the Shooting of Chanel Hines, and for the 24 Facebook posts. The Board also recommended that Salamendra be issued a warning regarding her conduct at the November 14, 2020 protest.
The Board asserted that it had provided Salamendra with three separate opportunities to respond to the allegations and that she had failed to respond. At Wednesday’s meeting, Salamendra stated that she had not disclosed any confidential information as she did not have access to any confidential information in this case. She clarified that Rochester news media outlets had already disclosed the identity of the Parole Officer involved in the shooting of Chanel Hines before she identified him at the Council’s meeting. Salamendra also disputed the Board’s complaints about her speech stating that she felt the Board’s actions infringed upon her First Amendment Constitutional right of free speech. In addition, Salamendra also disputed that the Board had given her three opportunities to respond to the Complaints. Salamendra stated that she had only been invited to present her response at one meeting, which she had been unable to attend due to a family medical issue.
Valentino did not state at Wednesday’s meeting whether or not he intends to take any action on the recommended sanctions against Salamendra. Fingerlakes1.com has reached out to Valentino asking about whether or not he will take action on the sanction recommendations, but had not heard back from him when this article was published.
During the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting, the Council heard one resident complain that she had found it difficult to find updated Council meeting minutes on the City’s website. Article 7, Section 106(3) of New York’s Public Officers Law (The Open Meetings Law) requires that government entities make meeting minutes available to the public within two weeks of regular meetings. When Fingerlakes1 checked the City of Geneva’s website on January 7, 2021, no Council meeting minutes had been posted since October 7, 2020. When contacted, Geneva City Clerk Lori Guinan indicated that the City had fallen behind in posting minutes because of the number of meetings the Council had been holding. In addition, Guinan indicated that the City’s policy was not to post meeting minutes until they had been approved by the Council. However, Guinan also stated that residents could request copies of meeting minutes not yet post by contacting the City, at which point she sends out the minutes as “drafts”.
The Council kicked off 2021’s official business with two public hearings regarding the sale of City-owned property at 63 Oak Street and 11 West Ave. Neither public hearing received any public comment. The public hearings permitted the Council to consider resolutions approving the sale of the two properties.
The Council first considered Resolution 1-2021 to sell 63 Oak Street. Assistant City Manager Adam Blowers informed the Council that the property had an assessed value of $6,700 and was a vacant lot that could not be developed under the existing zoning law. Blowers clarified that the property could potentially be built upon under the new proposed zoning law. Blowers also told the Council that the City had only received one bid on the property. The bid was for $100 and was presented by an adjacent landowner who intended to combine 63 Oak Street with his property and maintain it as green space. The Council was concerned that the bid was too low given that the property might be more valuable once the new zoning law was enacted. Consequently, the Council amended the resolution to require that the property not be sold for less than $4,000. The Council then approved the amended resolution.
Resolution 2-2021 sought authorization to sell the property located at 11 West Street. Blowers indicated that this was a slightly different situation in that the property does already have a residence on it. However, Blowers stated that the property would need considerable work before it would be habitable. Blowers told the Council that the City had marketed the property at its assessed value of $58,500, but that the City had only received one bid offering to purchase the property for $23,000. Resolution 2-2021 was approved unanimously.
The Council also considered Resolutions 3-2021 and 4-2021 which involved the establishment of Bond funding the purchase of an aerial apparatus fire truck. Resolution 3-2021 simply declared that the purchase of the aerial apparatus fire truck did not require an environmental impact study. This resolution was a procedural requirement because bond funding was being proposed for the purchase. Resolution 3-2021 passed on a unanimous vote.
Resolution 4-2021 proposed establishing $1,497,000 in bond funding to actually purchase the fire apparatus truck. Blowers told the Council that payments on the Bonds would not be required until roughly March 2022, thus not impacting this year’s budget. Blowers also stated that the debt service on these bonds would be absorbed by the debt service being eliminated this year. Blowers also stated that by passing the Resolution immediately, the City would realize a $31,000 discount on the fire truck.
The resolution caused a lengthy discussion amongst the Council. Counselor Ken Camera (Ward 4) objected to passing the resolution immediately. Camera referred to the $31,000 discount as a “red herring”. Camera believed the City could continue to repair the existing Aerial Apparatus truck and use this purchase as a springboard for discussion of fire service consolidation with the Town of Geneva. Most of the rest of the Council opposed Camera’s approach because the current truck, which only had a 15-year life expectancy, had been in service for 22 years and cost the City roughly $50,000 annually to maintain.
Councilor Frank Gaglianese (At-Large) did not want to live with the consequences of needing the truck to save lives and it not being available due to maintenance issues. Gaglianese also referenced a
1993 *1966 incident where the City had delayed replacing a fire truck and the breaks gave out causing the truck to crash into the side of a building. Pealer felt it was the Council’s job to protect the public’s safety and thought the Council should make the purchase now because it was being recommended by the City’s expert in the field, Fire Chief Michael Combs. Valentino expressed concern that not having a functioning Aerial Apparatus truck would raise insurance rates for the City. Combs confirmed that typically the absence of an Aerial Apparatus can increase commercial insurance rates in a jurisdiction by as much as 3%-5%. Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large) also supported making the purchase immediately because he felt the city had been “nickel and diming” itself by paying to maintain the old equipment.
* Councilor Gaglianese contacted FingerLakes1.com to inform us that he misspoke at the meeting in regard to the date of the event he referenced. The correct date was 1966, not 1993. We have updated the report in the paragraph above.
Prior to the vote on Resolution 4-2021 Camera clarified that he did not oppose public safety. When the vote was taken, the resolution passed with only Camera voting no.
Despite concerns raised last year by several councilors regarding actions taken by City Attorney Emil Bove, Jr., the Council also unanimously approved Resolution 5-2021 designating Midey, Mirras, & Ricci, LLP as the law firm to serve as Geneva City Attorney for 2021. The firm will be paid a monthly retainer of $7,500 for 50 hours of work and a fee of $150 per hour for all work that exceeds the monthly retainer.
The Council also unanimously approved Resolution 6-2021 approving a contract negotiated with the Geneva Municipal Employees Unit. This unit covers 14 positions in Geneva City Government. The new contract achieved cost savings to the City by reducing benefits to new hires, creating a new salary structure for new hires, and by lengthening the time of service for new hires before retirement benefits become vested.
City Staff also submitted Resolution 7-2021 seeking authorization to submit a New York Main Street Anchor Grant application on behalf of Downtown Living, LLC. Downtown Living LLC sought the City’s assistance because the grant is not open to for-profit entities. Downtown Living LLC is seeking a grant to assist in renovating property located at 435 Exchange Street. The City’s only expense for this project would be some minor staff time needed to oversee the grant. Although Camera expressed some concerns about having provisions in the agreement between the City and Downtown Living, LLC to ensure that the proposed work is actually completed, Resolution 7-2021 ultimately passed with only Salamendra voting no. Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1) on the advice of legal counsel abstained from the vote.
Camera introduced Resolution 8-2021 supporting Seneca Falls Town Local Law 3 and efforts to close the Seneca Meadows Inc. Landfill. Camera brought the resolution because of the smells the Seneca Meadows Landfill had consistently caused in Geneva. Although there were some efforts to slightly soften the resolution, it ultimately passed as presented.
The Council also approved the first reading of Ordinance #1-2021. The ordinance would establish a listing of vacant and abandoned property and establish an enforcement officer. Ordinances must be read and approved at two separate Council meetings to become law. The goal of the Ordinance was to allow staff and the public to track vacant and abandoned property in the Community. The Ordinance would also facilitate the quicker and more effective restoration of vacant and abandoned property. In addition, the Ordinance may result in enhanced fines for a landowner’s failure to properly maintain a vacant and abandoned property, which may give the City greater opportunity to resolve issues with these properties quicker. The first reading of the Ordinance passed with a unanimous vote.
Finally, in non-action items, the Council made recommendations to staff to avoid any actions seeking development of Loomis Woods and recommended that staff pursue efforts to increase the fine for parking tickets on snow days to $75-$100 per ticket as an effort to encourage residents to move their vehicles so that streets can be properly plowed.
Todd covers local government in the Finger Lakes. He has a JD degree the Lincoln Law School of Sacramento. Send tips to [email protected].