SCHENECTADY — The city’s top public safety official is headed toward the exit.
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Eidens confirmed his retirement on Monday.
“I’ll be 71 in a few months and I’ve been working hard my whole life,” Eidens said. “I always knew when it would be time.”
While an exact departure date has yet to be finalized, Eidens envisions leaving office by late November.
Mayor Gary McCarthy will announce Eidens’ successor Tuesday.
“I’m disappointed to see him go,” McCarthy said. “But at the same time, I understand he is going into a new phase of life.”
The public safety commissioner oversees the city Police, Fire and Buildings departments.
Eidens was appointed to the job by McCarthy in Oct. 2017 shortly after the decision by the state’s highest court strengthened the post, ruling the commissioner had final approval of the police discipline process, overturning a decision by a lower court that sided with the Schenectady Police Benevolent Association and state Public Employment Relations Board.
“He’s served with distinction and the disciplined vision [Wayne] Bennett had when Wayne was the public safety commissioner here,” McCarthy said, referring to the late commissioner, who died months before Eiden was appointed.
The post also gained Building Department oversight as part of internal reform efforts following the fatal 2015 Jay Street Fire. Subsequent investigations found a lack of communication between departments, in part, which led to the four deaths in the blaze.
The outgoing commissioner said he’s proud of his efforts.
“We made a lot of progress and did a lot of good things,” Eidens said.
The commissioner, a former Schenectady County judge, retired briefly last March before returning in May 2019 to focus exclusively on police discipline in a part-time capacity.
Under his oversight, Eidens said the city has been following closely the internal process laid out in the state’s Second Class Cities law when it comes to police disciplinary issues.
There’s been 20 discipline matters during Eidens’ leadership. All have been settled without the department’s form of a trial, which would be prosecuted by the city Corporation Counsel’s Office.
“None of them have gone to a hearing,” Eidens said.
McCarthy said avoiding litigation has been a benefit to the city, and said he was supportive of restructuring the police disciplinary process to give the commissioner sole oversight.
“Taking them to arbitration is lengthy, it’s expensive, and I don’t believe in general that it serves management, employees or the public,” McCarthy said.
Police Chief Eric Clifford said Eidens has been instrumental in ensuring that the reforms coupled discipline with training in a compressed timeline.
Under the previous system, officers could be re-trained for something, but a lengthy arbitration process resulted in punishment being handed down months later, a lag the chief said could be morale-crushing.
“Nobody wants to be disciplined today for something that happened six or eight months ago,” Clifford said. “He really helped us craft the commissioner model of discipline. I feel like we’ve developed a model that’s very fair. It’s a model that allows us to discipline swiftly while still maintaining the ability to train properly through the discipline model.”
Yet it’s a model that’s been cast under a spotlight this summer amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a controversial arrest made by a city police officer.
Eidens acknowledged the high level of scrutiny on the city Police Department as a result of the altercation between Officer Brian Pommer and Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud this summer, and the repeal of 50-a, the state statute previously used to shield police personal records.
“Now with 50-a gone, these matters will be FOIL-able, so there will be quite a bit of transparency with disciplinary matters, how they’re handled and what the results are,” Eidens said, referring to the state’s freedom of information law.
The Schenectady PBA has sued the city to prevent the release of unsubstantiated claims concerning Pommer’s work records, and the case is working its way through the court system.
Eidens praised city staff and said they don’t get enough credit, particularly chief Building Inspector Christopher Lunn, who oversees the Code Enforcement Office.
“I think they often go unheralded for the quality of their work and their commitment,” Eidens said.
Lunn said it was an “absolute pleasure” to work for Eidens on reform efforts, which included making code enforcement officers more accountable for the properties they inspect, boosting training for interacting with the public and bolstering the use of technology, including smartphone apps to track inspections and in-car printers.
“We appreciate all that he did and the service he provided to the city,” Lunn said.
While the city Buildings Department could use more funding, Eidens acknowledged the fiscal restraints generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“City government is never perfect but you always try to make it better,” Eidens said.
McCarthy said reform efforts are continuing in a city where distressed properties are a “major” draw on resources.
He also wants to better identify high needs individuals and locations that require assistance from city Police, Fire and Building departments and use technology to better respond to calls, ideally without high-priced police and fire staffers in emergency situations
“That’s still an ongoing effort that we’re doing,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said funding will ultimately determine if Eidens’ successor will take on the full portfolio of overseeing operations at the three departments.
The city’s 2021 spending plan approved by City Council last month contains $40,000 for the part-time position.
“We’re looking at going forward with the budget to see what we’re going to be dealing with in 2021 with available funding,” McCarthy said. “We’re optimistic now there will be some federal assistance, although we’re not sure of the magnitude and timing of it.”