Schenectady County

Schenectady charter change would end ‘handshake deals’

Schenectady residents will be asked to change the city’s charter this November to put an end to “han

Schenectady residents will be asked to change the city’s charter this November to put an end to “handshake deals” like the one that nearly gave Fire Chief Robert Farstad a much sweeter pension.

The revision would give the City Council sole authority over all employment contracts — even those not negotiated by a union.

But Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden thinks the revision might also get rid of the management scourge known as “past practice.”

Employees use “past practice” to keep a perk that was never authorized but had been allowed some time in the past, usually by a supervisor. It’s often discovered years later, when a manager tries to enforce the rules and employees say the rules have changed.

“Sometimes without the council knowing about it, without the mayor knowing about it, without the corporation counsel knowing about it, and then you get this surprise,” Van Norden said.

In the past year, this system forced the city to keep paying the salary of a police officer who could not perform his job because his driver’s license had been revoked. Long ago, another officer had been given desk work after losing his license, and so the city was forced to do it again.

Past practice also forced the city to pay buyouts to several managers who had saved up sick time, even though they had not been hired under a contract allowing them to cash out their sick time when they left.

Van Norden thinks the charter revision would put an end to all past practice precedents by making it clear that supervisors and department heads do not have the authority to offer any perks.

“With the revision, if you don’t get council approval, you do not have the authority to make that decision, to make that policy,” he said.

The official wording of the ballot question will be finalized within a month. The charter will be changed only if the question is approved by the voters during the November election.

More charter revisions may be proposed later this year.

Van Norden is going through the charter now and pinpointing obsolete provisions as well as suggested changes.

But City Council President Gary McCarthy said those would likely be placed on next year’s ballot.

“Some of the other things are a bigger undertaking,” he said. “We’ll need to discuss that, judge their impact.”

But the revision regarding employment contracts has widespread public support because of the Farstad issue, he said.

“We can put that on the ballot this year,” he said.

Farstad is retiring after the council refused to support his effort to increase his pension. Farstad had worked out a secret deal with Mayor Brian U. Stratton in which he could convert accumulated sick time and vacation leave into overtime.

Under the complicated rules of the state pension system, sick time and vacation leave don’t enhance pensions, but overtime does. The deal was uncovered through a Freedom of Information request from The Daily Gazette for Farstad’s overtime records, and city officials subsequently told the state not to count Farstad’s overtime toward his pension. Otherwise, he could have nearly doubled his pension.

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