NISKAYUNA — The town has increased diversity training and hired an outside firm to provide human resources support in the wake of last summer’s controversy over the former town comptroller having worn a “blackface” Halloween costume and posting pictures of it on Facebook.
The town on Tuesday released a report based on a five-month investigation by an independent law firm that found Paul Sebesta, town comptroller for 32 years and now retired, wore the costume in 2014, posted a photo on Facebook, and over several years showed it to other town employees, some of whom, though not all, were offended.
Sebesta maintains he never intended to offend anyone, and is still considering suing the town over his disciplining.
Sebesta, in a written statement submitted as part of the investigation, said he bought a knit cap with dreadlocks while in St. Kitts on a cruise vacation in 2013, planning to use it as part of a Halloween costume honoring reggae musician Bob Marley, of whom he was a fan.
“Bob Marley was a cultural and musical icon, and outspoken for his message of peace and love,” Sebesta wrote. “It was in this spirit that I wore the Halloween costume, not to demean, mock, or offend anyone.”
Immediate after Sebesta’s suspension and then retirement, the town withheld more than $26,000 in accrued unused vacation time when Sebesta retired, and Sebesta in July filed a notice of claim against the town for the money. Sebesta’s lawyer, Kevin Luibrand, on Tuesday said the money was paid on Dec. 31, but the payment wasn’t part of any settlement of Sebesta’s claims against the town.
“There is no settlement and he did not waive his right to file a lawsuit,” said Luibrand, who added that some people in and out of town government “sought to hunt him down and destroy his reputation.”
The report found that Town Board members said they were unaware of the “blackface” photo until the town received a complaint about it on June 15, and the investigation found no evidence disproving that.
“The Town Board reiterates its zero-tolerance for the use, depiction or display of ‘blackface’ by town employees, regardless of the intent, recognizing that it is racially offensive and insensitive,” the Town Board said in a statement released with the report.
The report was prepared for the town by Nixon Peabody, the Albany law firm retained by the town to conduct an investigation of the controversy. The firm reviewed numerous documents and conducted interviews with 27 witnesses. Sebesta, who as comptroller was also in charge of town human resource policy, submitted the written statement.
Sebesta submitted his retirement on June 18, three days after the town received a complaint about the costume from a group called Progressive Schenectady, and the Town Board held an emergency meeting and suspended him without pay.
Luibrand said Sebesta had planned to retire last April 30, but agreed to stay longer because the town was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Sebesta’s departure, the town has hired former Schenectady city finance commissioner Ismat Alam as its new comptroller.
On Tuesday, the Town Board said the town has also hired Saratoga Human Resources Inc. to provide human resources support services including employee relations, training, management consulting, conflict resolution and a 24/7 anonymous hotline for employees to report any concerns anonymously.
“We pledge to continue to enhance our workplace culture, provide anti-bias training to better equip our employees for success and create an open and inclusive atmosphere that our residents will be proud of,” the board said in a statement.
The report found that in 2018, a Twitter account called “NiskyLeaks” posted comments critical of Sebesta, including a screenshot of the Facebook photo. The then-town attorney alerted Sebesta, who changed the privacy settings on his Facebook page and told the attorney he had removed the photo.
The report also found that “numerous Town employees were aware of the ‘blackface’ photo, either from Facebook, the Twitter account, or because Sebesta had shown it to them after the 2014 party. The report says some employees told Sebesta the photo offended them, some were offended but said nothing to him, and some employees saw nothing wrong with it.
“Mr. Sebesta laughed and joked about the photo to colleagues and brushed aside criticism of its offensive nature,” the report said.
The town is now considering strengthening policies regarding non-discrimination, harassment and offensive or unprofessional behavior by town employees, whether on or off town premises. The Town Board is also considering whether human resources should be handled differently than having them administered through the town comptroller’s office, the report said.