SCHENECTADY — The city of Schenectady has won control over discipline of city police officers after the state’s highest court ruled in the city’s favor Tuesday.
The long-running fight focuses on the city’s contention that the city’s public safety commissioner has the sole authority to discipline officers.
The union that represents police officers in the city, however, challenged that assertion, appealing to the state Public Employment Relations Board, which sided with the union.
The appeals process finally landed the question with the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which heard arguments in the case last month.
The Court of Appeals reversed the PERB ruling and found the laws sided with the city.
The ruling effectively short-circuits the non-commissioner disciplinary process that ultimately involved an arbitrator and could extend the process for months. The commissioner led process brings a simpler, more straight-forward disciplinary process, city officials say.
Mayor Gary McCarthy praised the decision Tuesday. He also said he hopes with the current department the disciplinary process won’t have to be used.
“Hopefully with our higher level of recruitment and the command staff we have in place a lot of the issues that have happened with that department in the past are behind us,” McCarthy said.
The city’s public safety commissioner’s position is currently vacant, after the August passing of longtime Commissioner Wayne Bennett. McCarthy said he sees no current disciplinary cases that would rise to the level of needing commissioner review.
City officials identified the opening years ago after a spate of officer discipline issues and have pushed their arguments in the courts.
Under the old system, officers could appeal decisions to an arbitrator. The process led to suspended officers paid to stay home from work for months, and in many cases years, until their case was heard. The city spent $1.23 million to fire seven officers in 2010.
Officers have questioned whether they would get a fair deal from the commissioner, who would likely have heard about the case before the hearing. Some officers have questioned whether the commissioner would be able to act as an impartial judge.
The officers also preferred appealing their case to an arbitrator, who has the freedom to judge the evidence and decide whether it’s convincing and whether the alleged misdeed was bad enough to warrant punishment.
Under the commissioner-led system, an appeal is still possible, but officers would instead have to go to a judge, who would impose high standards to overturn.
Attorney Michael Ravalli, who represents the police union, did not return calls for comment Tuesday. PERB executive director Jonathan O’Rourke, whose office also argued before the high court, did not have a comment when reached and said they do not plan to issue a comment.
The dispute centered on the application of two laws, the Taylor Law and the Second Class Cities Law.
The Taylor Law mandates that disciplinary procedures for all public employees be the subject of good faith collective bargaining. The Second Class Cities Law, which was enacted prior to the Taylor Law, commits police discipline to the discretion of the public safety commissioner.
The city argued there was precedent for its argument from similar cases in New York City and the town of Wallkill in Orange County, in which the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the commissioner having exclusive power to discipline police.
In the unanimous decision issued Tuesday, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed that stance.
“This case is controlled by our prior decisions” related to New York City and Wallkill, which are “substantively similar to the statutory provisions relevant here,” the court wrote.
“The Taylor Law’s general command regarding collective bargaining is not sufficient to displace the more specific authority granted by the Second Class Cities Law,” the court wrote. “Thus, our decisions (in New York City and Wallkill) control, and police discipline is a prohibited subject of bargaining in Schenectady.”
In other words, the commissioner controls.
The court rejected PERB arguments that a clause in the Second Class Cities Law allowed the Taylor Law to supersede.
“The Second Class Cities Law has not been expressly repealed or superseded by the Legislature, nor was it implicitly repealed by the enactment of the Taylor Law in 1967,” the court wrote in its Tuesday ruling.
The fight over police discipline between the city and the Schenectady Police Benevolent Association has lasted several years.
Prior to the Court of Appeals ruling in the New York City case, police unions throughout the state successfully negotiated to take disciplinary powers away from their managers and instead have municipalities hire arbitrators.
In 2012, the Schenectady police union turned to the Public Employment Relations Board to argue that the New York City ruling did not apply to Schenectady.
In 2013 PERB ruled that the collectively bargained, arbitrator-based system be in effect, based on the 1967 Taylor Law.
Two city council members expressed relief Tuesday that the issue has now been decided.
“I’m happy that we now have a clear-cut answer once and for all,” City Council President Leesa Perazzo said.
She said the commissioner-led discipline process allows for a stable process. She also wants to ensure the process is fair and just.
Councilman Vince Riggi said he believes the ruling will pay long-term dividends for the city and the department.
“I think it’s going to make for a better department,” Riggi said. “The rank and file may not be happy, but it will add more credibility to the department right now. That can’t be a bad thing, I don’t believe.”