Democrats mull axing Bennett

Commissioner now can handle police discipline

Tuesday, October 30, 2012
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— The Democrats in the City Council kicked Councilman Vince Riggi out of Monday’s budget discussion so they could secretly talk out their changes to the 2013 budget.

The council plans to vote on the final budget today at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Council members would not explain what budgetary items were so sensitive that they wanted to talk about them behind closed doors without Riggi, the only non-Democrat on the council.

But their discussion prior to closing the doors indicated that the big secret was their desire to get rid of Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett.

That came as a surprise to Mayor Gary McCarthy, who was not present for the secret meeting and said he had not known Bennett would be discussed. He said the council would be making “a big mistake” to get rid of Bennett.

“I see him as a key component in terms of the continued evolution of that department, from one that is struggling to one that has the potential for greatness,” he said. “We’re not going to get there if we make mediocre decisions.”

The mayor can veto the budget; a vote of 5 council members would override the veto. McCarthy would not say whether he’d veto the budget if Bennett’s position is eliminated.

Discipline issue

Bennett would be paid $124,432 next year. The proposal to get rid of him comes just days after the highest court in the state ruled that municipalities like Schenectady can discipline their own police officers, rather than negotiating discipline with the police union.

Before the Democrats closed the meeting, they discussed the legal implications of eliminating Bennett’s job.

Some council members seemed to argue that internal discipline isn’t needed, although the union-negotiated system costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and takes months for each officer.

But Councilman Carl Erikson seemed to be arguing for a cheaper commissioner by giving the title to an existing employee.

“We don’t have to pay him $100,000 a year, we could pay him a dollar,” Erikson said.

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo disagreed, noting that discipline is a specialized task for which the council was unlikely to find a cheap hire. She stressed that the council didn’t have to keep Bennett unless it wanted to “proceed with discipline the way it’s been proposed.”

She said she had argued the point with Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam, who insisted that disciplinary authority was worth the cost of having a commissioner.

According to city law, only the commissioner is allowed to hold public hearings to decide whether officers are guilty of misconduct. If Bennett’s job is taken out of the budget, the disciplinary process that the city has fought for years to establish will be stopped, Corporation Counsel John Polster said.

When Erikson proposed giving the title to the next police chief — who has not yet been determined — Polster said that wouldn’t work.

“It’s the difference between the prosecutor and the judge,” he said.

Erikson suggested the fire chief.

“He just couldn’t discipline firefighters,” he said.

When that was nixed — because a commissioner needs to discipline all public safety employees — he said someone ought to be able to do it.

“Some people can sweep and shovel,” he said.

But Perazzo and Councilwoman Margaret King said the city could simply get rid of Bennett and stick with the current disciplinary process.

Union influence

That presumably would please the police union, which has sued the city repeatedly to try to stop Bennett from being allowed to discipline his employees.

Locally, the police union controls the Conservative Party, which used to endorse Democrats. But last year and this year, it has endorsed candidates running against the Democrats.

This year, the party endorsed Richard Patierne, who is running against Councilwoman Marion Porterfield in next week’s election.

Porterfield did not say publicly whether she supported eliminating Bennett’s position. But she participated in the closed-door discussion.

When asked how she could support a closed meeting on such an important topic, she backtracked quickly, professing ignorance to the plan for a secret meeting. She said she didn’t want to kick out Riggi or the public, which was also excluded from the meeting. But Council President Denise Brucker told Porterfield that she knew about the plan and hadn’t objected.

Porterfield did not try to persuade her colleagues to keep the meeting open.

Her opponent, Patierne, said he was shocked that Porterfield went along with her colleagues on the secret meeting.

“I can’t even imagine that happened,” he said, saying it was a “turning point” toward a non-transparent government. The council has not held a secret meeting since 2007, when it did so to argue with county officials over control of a joint affirmative action director.

Patierne said holding a secret meeting on the budget — a far more serious issue than the affirmative action director — was a mistake. He said the council must work together to resolve what he described as “probably one of the most important budget decisions facing the city.”

Questions secrecy

He also questioned why the council would discuss budget plans in secret.

“Is there something to hide?” he asked.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, also condemned the decision.

“What they plan to do is legal, but in my opinion it represents the worst in public policy,” Freeman said. “What could be more important to the citizens of Schenectady than an open discussion of the budget?”

Councilman Carl Erikson said he wouldn’t mind keeping the meeting open. But he, like Porterfield, did not try to persuade the rest of the council.

Brucker, Perazzo and King insisted on kicking Riggi out so that they could meet secretly.

Under the state’s Open Meetings Law, they could legally meet that way if they met as a caucus. Only members of one party are allowed into a caucus, and Riggi is not a Democrat.

The Democrats said they had to have a secret meeting so they could confidentially discuss which employees should lose their jobs in next year’s budget.

However, department heads have been openly discussing possible job eliminations throughout the public budget sessions. After a member of the media challenged the closed meeting, Perazzo explained.

“I may have a suggestion other people don’t agree with,” she said, adding that she wanted the other Democrats on the council to weigh in on those suggestions before making them publicly.

But she argued that the council would not simply decide on its budget Monday night.

“Tomorrow night we need to have another discussion,” she said. “It’s not like we’re making all the decisions on the budget tonight and then voting on it.”

Riggi said that was exactly what they were doing. He said the decision would stop him from trying to persuade them to make the budget alterations he had in mind, while also preventing them from proposing ideas to him.

“I’m an elected official. I’m representing the people of Schenectady,” he said. “It isn’t fair to the taxpayers and the people who voted for me.”

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October 30, 2012
6:28 a.m.

They should be ashamed of themselves...(Brucker,Perazzo,Porterfield, King and Erikson)..but the are not....abusive and a slap in the face to the people of Schenectady. How do these people sleep at night or look in the mirror. They will all answer for their actions when they seek people vote for representation like this is unconscionable...there is no moral compass. Open and transparent is non existent in the dark and seedy world of a ONE PARTY SELF SERVING MACHINE!.."Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."~Abraham Lincoln

October 30, 2012
7:02 a.m.
wmarincic says...

This is the way democrats work. That is why America is a democratic "Republic", so this stuff doesn't happen. You idiots just keep voting these crooks into power and then keep complaining that they steal your money with higher taxes. It would be so funny if it were not so true. I bet you wish we had Roger Hull now.....

October 30, 2012
7:36 a.m.

The Dems are embarrassing. They are acting like sophomores on a high school student council. They do not evan have the finesse to caucus amongst themselves, to avoid being seen as totally power hungry.

As a citizen, I view Mr. Bennett as standing out as one of very few professionals employed by the city. He's an asset

The Dems are a group of naive sophomores.

October 30, 2012
8:38 a.m.
cpills says...

I don't know how the democrats on the city council can live with themselves. It is so obvious to the people of Schenectady what is going on and why. Brucker, Perazzo, Porterfield,King and Erickson, could care less. They have their own agenda that does not include what is right for the tax payers. It make me sick to think that people who do not live in the city have so much influence on our elected official through their unions, shame on the city council. Mr. Bennet is an asset to the city and I for one support him.

October 30, 2012
9:34 a.m.

McCarthy, Brucker, Perazzo, King,Erikson, and Porterfield....all thank and praise the PBA for their support during their support Bennett and open hearings to get rid of corrupt and bad officers...would go against the power they want to remain in control. Thank you Mr. Bennett for doing all you could in this matter. Boss Gardener and His Puppet machine of McCarthy, Brucker , Perazzo, King, Erikson and Poerterfield will do all they can to keep their cozy relationship in the darkness of evil they support and breed.

October 30, 2012
9:43 a.m.

And where is Mr. Hull?....He should of been at every meeting this year....If he truly cares about this city and wants to have change he should be down there every meeting supporting Vince Riggi and expressing change for the city...writing a few op eds..does nothing for change and support for what needs to be done for transparency and open government...The Gazette editors are equally guilty in this matter...they bury this story in the obituary section...This should of been right on the front page..How this is not major news in their eyes is a disservice to their journalistic oath to Truth...totally disgusting.

October 30, 2012
1:23 p.m.
poupore says...

Good ole Schenectady, some things never change. Secret meetings and backdoor deals with the unions; it's a modern day Tammany Hall. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Keep electing these folks, just don't be surprised by the results.

October 30, 2012
2:39 p.m.
dlombardo says...

The city council basically just went into conference. This happens all the time with the state Legislature, in the state Senate or Assembly, when the majority party will call for a break in the session to hold a conference meeting. In this meeting they decide how to vote on an impending issue.

What happened in the city council meeting isn't unique to a specific political party or level of government. That's not to say it is good or bad, but that it is a recurring element of our two-party system.

October 30, 2012
2:58 p.m.
kmoore says...

dlombardo: what's interesting here is that this is NOT a recurring element in Schenectady. This is, in fact, the first time I've seen this happen in all the years I've covered the City Council.

October 30, 2012
4:57 p.m.
mezz3131 says...

KMoore, get your facts straight. The Police Union does NOT control the Conservative Party. The Union has changed leadership twice since you have first reported this. Wake up and confirm your information before you write it. I realize that this is NOT something that you typically do, in all the years that I have covered your reporting.
As for Commissioner Bennett, he is an excellent man who will not be the first excellent police commissioner to be axed based on politics. This reinforces our Civil Service System and (civil servants need for protection) from politicians. As for Erikson, bravo to you for working hard to find solutions. But please don't get crazy. Fire Chief as Commissioner? Seriously? Pay a Commissioner $1 to do the job? Making comments like this hurt your credibility, not help it.

October 30, 2012
5:59 p.m.

DLOMBARDO, you just defined 'caucus.'

October 30, 2012
6:03 p.m.
wmarincic says...

I may not like the brass at SPD but the one thing you can say about Wayne Bennett is that he is fair and he is honest.

October 30, 2012
6:18 p.m.

DLOMBARDO.....Vince Riggi does not belong to a political party...There is not a "Two Party" element working here...Just one party and a non party councilman...And Mezz....boy that would be great news to know that the Conservative Party is not controlled by the PBA...that would be amazing....So...who controls the conservative party now that the PBA doesn't control it?....Is this the same for the Working Families Party being controlled by the Firemen?....Please share what you know about the PBA not controlling the Conservative Party in Schenectady....That would be great news...seeing that Vince Riggi was not even interviewed by the Conservative Party for support or non support....They did support...Brucker, Perazzo, King.....etc...interesting news there..Hopefully Kathleen Moore can get these facts on record to dispute what has been all these years in Schenectady.

October 31, 2012
12:43 a.m.
ajames says...

Wow, SchenectadyScott is just stuffed full of mis-information... Working Families Party controlled by the Firemen? Please do some research before you state obvious mistakes. And if I remember correctly, Brucker and King were not endorsed by the Conservative Party last year, Dukes and Tiberio were.

November 8, 2012
6:26 a.m.

Wow, ajames.....I didn't just fall off a turnip truck....The Working Families is the Fireman's Party...if you don't know the history and the lineage of the should...misinformation....your the one for King and want to argue over how many years the Conservative Party controlled by the PBA supported them go right ahead...get your facts straight before you write anymore misleading nonsense...Anyone who has lived in Schenectady for some time knows the Truth of what is going on here....otherwise you are just a fool brainwashed...for your own agenda and not Schenectady and what is best for the city.

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