At the Wednesday, March 3 meeting of Geneva City Council members heard an Ethics Board Complaint filed against Councilor Laura Salamendra (Ward 5) related to her actions at a Sunday, July 19, 2020, Back The Blue rally in Geneva. At the end of the Ethics Board’s three-page decision, the Board included a statement complaining that Mayor Steve Valentino and Council had failed to take any action on previous Ethics complaints.
The Ethics complaint brought against Salamendra was brought by an unnamed member of the Geneva Fire Department who alleged that Salamendra’s conduct endangered his safety while he was on duty directing traffic during the Back The Blue rally. The complaint alleged that Salamendra engaged in verbally abusive behavior and refused to move a vehicle out of an intersection as directed by the fireman directing traffic. The Ethics Board found that Salamendra was in the passenger seat of the vehicle involved in the incident. The Ethics Board reviewed video footage from a Geneva Welcome Center security camera. The Ethics Board concluded that the security camera footage documented that Salamendra and her companions were stopped in the intersection for over two minutes. The Ethics Board further concluded that the video footage documented that Salamendra and her companions refused to cooperate with the fireman’s requests, and engaged in a verbal altercation with the Fireman.
In addition, the Ethics Board reviewed a police report which documented the vehicle in which Salamendra was riding had a covered license plate and that the driver had a suspended license. The police report also alleged that Salamendra screamed inappropriate language directly at law enforcement.
Salamendra presented two short video clips from cell phone footage and statements claiming that the vehicle was “parked in a lane that was surrounded by cones.” The Ethics Board concluded that Salamendra’s own submitted video evidence showed that the vehicle was blocking a traffic lane. During the Council meeting, Salamendra adamantly asserted that the incident did not occur in the manner described in the Ethics Board complaint.
The Ethics Board concluded that Salamendra effectively lied to the Board with her statement, and violated Tenets 2, 3, and 16 of the Code of Ethics.
The Board concluded that Salamendra violated Tenet 2 titled “Compliance with the Law” because she violated the open process of government by submitting a false statement to the Board. The Board relied on the video evidence and Salamendra’s written statement in reaching this conclusion. The Board contended that Salamendra’s false statements constituted a violation of New York State Penal Law §210.45 – Making a Punishable Written Statement. Violations of New York State Penal Law § are a Class A Misdemeanor. Class A Misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail or three years probation, and/or a fine of up to $1000 or twice the amount of gain the individual received because of the false statement.
The Board called Salamendra’s violation of Tenet 3 – “Conduct of Public Officials” “egregious”. The Board concluded that Salamendra clearly engaged in abusive conduct towards the complainant Fireman. Although Salamendra stated that she was not the driver of the vehicle and had no control over it, the Board concluded that Salamendra also violated Tenet 3 of the Code of Ethics because she did not take action to persuade the driver of the vehicle to comply with the requests of the Fireman directing traffic. The Board also concluded that Salamendra violated Tenet 3 by yelling expletive(s) about the police.
The Board’s decision also found that Salamendra violated Tenet 16 – “Positive Workplace Environment” because her actions put the Firefighter who was directing traffic in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation. The complaint decision also indicated that the City had investigated a Workplace Violence Complaint against Salamendra in connection with the same incident and which was based on the same facts. The Council met in Executive Session prior to the Council meeting to discuss the results of this complaint investigation, but it was unclear whether those results would be publicly disclosed.
At the conclusion of the Board’s decision, the Board stated:
“This will be the third consecutive time Councilor Salamendra has been found in violation of the Code of ethics. She claims that her behavior is motivated by her “passion,” but her “passion” seems to take the form of inappropriate language, behavior, and treatment of City Employees.
To the INCREASING DISCREDIT of the Mayor and City Council, NOTHING has been done about any of this. The Board of Ethics is entirely aware that our duty ends with our findings and recommendations, but allowing such unethical behavior such as Councilor Salamendra has displayed shows the Citizens of Geneva just how little the Mayor and City Council care about regulating their own behavior. The Board STRONGLY recommends that Council TAKE ACTION to ensure that this manner of unethical behavior be checked and prevented in the future.”
This led to a discussion that revealed most Councilors, including Valentino, believed they had little to no authority to impose punishment for Ethics Code violations. The consensus was that the only action Council could take was a Censure, which Valentino described as a sternly worded letter of reprimand that would go into the Councilor’s file. Councilor Jan Regan (Ward 3) felt it was sufficient punishment for the ethics violation decisions to be read publicly at a Council meeting. Some Councilors also expressed concern that perhaps some Ethics Board Complaints were going to far a field of Council activities and delving into Councilor’s conduct in their own personal lives while not on Council business.
However, some Councilor’s felt that some sort of action expressing the Council’s disapproval Salamendra’s actions was warranted given the severe nature of the complaint. Councilors Anthony Noone (At-Large) and William Pealer (Ward 2) both expressed concern about the serious nature of the complaint, particularly since they felt Salamendra’s actions put the safety of City employees at risk.
Salamendra took exception to some of the comments made regarding her conduct and believed Councilors were personally attacking her. In her response, Mayor Valentino attempted to shut down Salamendra’s direct attacks on Noone. Salamendra felt that she should be able to respond directly to Noone because she felt he attacked her, but Valentino countered that Noone was responding directly to the information provided in the Ethics Complaint, while Salamendra was making a direct attack on Noone.
Pealer moved to Censure Salamendra. Valentino suggested that Pealer should consult with the City Attorney first and draft a Resolution. Pealer asserted his right to make the motion from the floor. The motion was Seconded by Councilor Frank Gaglianese (At-Large). After a brief discussion, Noone stated that he thought the Council should hear from the Ethics Board regarding what they are looking for from the Council regarding enforcement of the Code of Ethics before the Council voted on the motion to censure Salamendra. Noone moved to table the Censure vote until consultation with the Board of Ethics. Pealer agreed with Noone’s idea and Seconded the motion to table his own proposed action. The motion to table carried on a split 5-4 vote with Salamendra, Regan, Councilor Ken Camera (Ward 4), and Councilor John Pruett (Ward 6) voting against tabling the motion. The motion to table cut off all further discussion on the Ethics Board Complaint.