Schenectady County

City demands answers on police discipline plan

For the third time in a year, city officials are preparing to persuade the governor that Schenectady
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For the third time in a year, city officials are preparing to persuade the governor that Schenectady needs the ability to discipline its police officers.

But this time, the Schenectady City Council is also going to ask that its state Senate and Assembly representatives to explain, in person, why they want arbitrators disciplining city officers instead of letting Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett make the final decision himself.

The Senate has already passed a bill that would require Schenectady and other cities to use arbitration to resolve disciplinary measures, and the Assembly is expected to vote on the measure within a week. The same bill has been approved three times since 2006 but each time has been vetoed by former governors George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer.

Each time, including the most recent Senate vote, the local legislators voted in favor of the bill. Council members said Monday that they’re sick of being ignored by these representatives.

“I’d like to have an explanation from them, face to face,” said Councilwoman Denise Brucker.

In an interview Monday, Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said he thought the police department had long been disciplined by a commissioner, not arbitrators. He said Schenectady’s troubled police department is proof that discipline from a commissioner doesn’t work.

“Schenectady has had that. Have they done a good job? They say they haven’t,” he said. “I happen to believe in arbitration. I think many times it can be more fair and solve the problem better than a politician.”

The city actually used arbitrators until last year, and Bennett has not yet used his authority to discipline any officers in public hearings.

Farley also told The Gazette he had heard nothing about Schenectady’s experience with arbitration.

In last year’s campaign to stop the police discipline bill, Mayor Brian U. Stratton argued that the city sometimes could not get its officers to behave because arbitrators consistently overturned the police chief’s decisions to discipline or fire officers.

“They feel they can do basically whatever they want because the arbitrators are going to rule in their favor,” Stratton said then.

But Farley said he had never heard Stratton’s examples of errant officers being returned to the force by arbitrators.

“I am not terribly familiar with that,” he said, adding, “I did not receive a phone call. I did not receive a letter … I could seek out people who think one way or the other. I don’t know that that’s my role. What I have to do is what I think is right.”

Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said city officials did not begin to lobby against the bill before this year’s Senate vote because they didn’t know about it.

“When it went for a vote in the Senate, no one knew about it. It took us all by surprise,” he said.

Last year, the city hired a lobbyist to oppose the bill, but it has not been using a lobbyist this year, he said.

In the Assembly, a spokesman for Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, said Tedisco is studying the bill and listening to constituents before making a decision. Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, did not return a call seeking comment.

The council wants to hear from both of them, as well as Farley, next Monday. The council may also vote Monday on a letter that would urge the Assembly and Gov. David Paterson to oppose the police discipline bill.

The state’s repeated efforts to pass the police discipline bill are in response to a 2006 Court of Appeals ruling that says discipline can be handled by a civilian public safety commissioner instead of an arbitrator. Many municipal officials believed that state union labor contract laws required them to negotiate discipline, leading to the arbitration system that was commonly used until 2006. The proposed bill would overturn the court decision.

“The Court of Appeals simply said discipline cannot be negotiated and it was illegal to do so,” Bennett told the council. “We have a number of examples of why [arbitration] has failed the city and failed it very seriously.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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