Secrecy is assured for Schenectady cops

The city of Schenectady got a lot more than it bargained for the other day in court.

The city of Schenectady got a lot more than it bargained for the other day in court. What it was looking for was a ruling on whether it could open police disciplinary hearings to the public, and of course it wanted a yes to that question.

What it got was not only a no, which was bad enough, but it got a riff from Judge Barry Kramer undermining the city’s entire claim to be able to administer police discipline outside the confines of its labor contract with the police union.

It’s a complicated matter, but in brief — or as brief as I can make it — Schenectady’s police commissioner, Wayne Bennett, seized a couple of years ago on a Court of Appeals decision that said if a city had a law on its books pre-dating the 1968 public-employment labor law, giving the city disciplinary power over its police, it could continue to exercise that power. It didn’t have to follow arbitration procedures provided for in a labor contract.

Obscure stuff, to be sure, but mighty important if you’re the public safety commissioner in a city with a crime-ridden police force. It was not clear that Schenectady had any such law on the books, but Bennett jumped on the court decision anyway and said, from now on I’ll do the disciplining. No more recourse to state arbitrators, who tend to be inconsistent if not outright partial to the unions.

One of the great benefits of the procedure he laid claim to was that it provided for disciplinary hearings to be open to the public. That was perfectly clear. Nevertheless the police union, the PBA, protested, always passionate about protecting the privacy of its own scoundrels, and the matter wound up in state Supreme Court, the Hon. Barry Kramer, surrogate judge of Schenectady County, presiding.

I confess I was not present for the proceeding, which I regret, but as best I can understand it second-hand, Kramer reasoned his way through the legal morass in such a way as to find the city’s entire claim to be ill-founded.

Never mind what the state’s highest court found with regard to New York City and Orangetown. That doesn’t control in the Schenectady case. The Taylor Law of 1968, empowering public-employee unions, trumps the old Second Class Cities Law, and sneaky Section 50-a of Civil Rights Law, sheltering the personnel records of cops and firefighters, trumps it too.

The Court of Appeals said the opposite, but that doesn’t count, for some reason.

So never mind whether the disciplinary hearing for one particular officer that was imminent should be open or closed. The whole rationale for unilateral discipline by the commissioner is out the window.

The immediate problem for Schenectady, then, is what to do about the seven cops it has on suspension, sitting home and collecting full pay. They’re accused of all manner of drunk driving, wife-beating, leaving the scene of an accident, and so forth, and Bennett wants to fire them. But this being government, he can’t. He wanted to haul them up on charges in a public forum, and now he can’t do that either.

“We’re going to examine our options,” he told me, but the liveliest choice, realistically, is to go back to the old secretive process provided for in the union contract, in which a disciplined cop can appeal to a state arbitrator.

“Our decision will be in that direction,” he predicted, the alternative being waiting another year of so for an appeal of Kramer’s decision to work its way up to the highest court.

Now, I don’t want anyone beating up on Judge Kramer for cutting the legs off Commissioner Bennett and making it harder to rein in Schenectady’s notoriously roguish police force. He does the best he can within the constraints of the law, I’m sure, just as he did the best he could a few years ago when former Mayor Frank Duci wrote a deathbed will for a friend, leaving himself all of his friend’s wealth and worldly goods.

It was a will written in Duci’s own hand and witnessed only by himself, his wife and his brother, with nothing to attest the dying man’s agreement but a shaky “X,” which could have been drawn by the man in the moon, as far as an outsider could tell.

Kramer upheld that will, written on a notepad under the heading, “The Shopping List for the Family of Mr. Frank J. Duci,” and Duci walked away with close to half a million simoleons.

A judge reads the law, squints his eyes, and makes his call.

Word watch

A few weeks ago I wrote in this space about the amorous adventures of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, likening him to Romeo.

I put a headline on the column, “Wherefore art thou Sanford?” recalling Juliet’s lament in Shakespeare’s play. Not wishing to take any chances, I added a note to the editor to resist the temptation of a comma. In other words, don’t make it, “Wherefore art thou, Sanford?”

Why? Because “wherefore” is not a fancy word for “where.” It’s old-fashioned for “why.”

Juliet was asking, “Why are you Romeo?” meaning, why are you that fellow from the horrible Montague family? She was not asking, “Where are you, Romeo? I’m looking for you and can’t find you.”

So you can imagine my dismay when I picked up this newspaper the other day and saw the front page headline, “Wherefore art thou, summer?” over a story about the cool weather we’ve been having.

Fie upon’t, I thought. Wherefore do editors not study Shakespeare?

As for Sonia Sotomayor, I tuned in to just enough of the Senate Judiciary Committee proceedings to hear her say, in response to a question about self-defense, “If you’re being threatened with eminent death or serious injury,” you can use force, but the question is, “How eminent is the threat?”

Her pronunciation was clear, so there was no mistaking what she said.

It set me to wondering, of course, if she is an imminent Supreme Court justice, and if she is, will she be an eminent one? Or should that be the other way around?

Categories: Opinion

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