SCHENECTADY — A city councilwoman said she’s mulling her options for recourse after the City Council president relieved her of roles on two committees this week.
During a committee meeting on Monday, it was revealed that Council President John Mootooveren removed Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas as chairwoman of Planning and Development, and as a member of the Finance Committee.
In an interview following the meeting, Zalewski-Wildzunas denounced the moves as “arbitrary,” and she said it had the effect of stalling an important city finance item.
She said her friends have suggested she should pursue a court appeal, or even call for a vote of no confidence in Mootooveren. Zalewski-Wildzunas said she’s considering both options and their ramifications.
Mootooveren selected Councilwoman Marion Porterfield to replace Zalewski-Wildzunas in both roles.
Mootooveren on Wednesday said he made the moves in reaction to two vacancies on the City Council that have not been filled for several months.
“We’re unable to fill the vacancies because three City Council members are opposed to it,” he said. “So I have no choice but to realign the nine committees that we have, and balance it.”
The balance, Mootooveren said, concerns minority representation on each committee. Porterfield is the council’s lone Black member, while Mootooveren is Guyanese.
“It’s not an easy task,” he said. “There’s five of us. There are nine committees. I did my best to align and to make sure it’s balanced across the board in terms of the demographic of the committee.”
Mootooveren went on to say he was committed to fair balance across all committees that included the two minority members.
Had the council appointed the two candidates the city Democratic Committee endorsed in February to fill the two vacancies, it would be easier to spread the assignments, rather than “cramping so much committee onto so many people,” he said.
Mootooveren insisted avoidance of a Democratic primary in June was not part of his thinking.
The city Democratic Committee endorsed Haileab Samuel and Carl Williams to fill the two vacancies in February.
But the council is divided on whether the seats should be filled immediately, with the endorsed candidates, or should have Samuel and Williams vie with other challengers in a June primary.
Zalewski-Wildzunas, with the backing of council majority leader John Polimeni and Councilwoman Carmel Patrick, prefer to have voters decide the fate of the two open seats.
“We need to have some transparency,” Zalewski-Wildzunas said, when reached after the meeting. “We need to have an open election process. I’m very supportive of whoever the Democratic Party wants to endorse. But I still think that we need to have an election process. This is the core of our democracy.
“And, yes, if it was necessary to appoint people, I would say yes we need to do it,” she continued. “But things have been running fine since the resignations ended back in January. Suddenly, this becomes an issue, a few months before the primary.”
Whether Mootooveren has the authority to make such unilateral changes to committees remains open to interpretation.
On Monday, city Corporation Counsel Andrew Koldin gave his opinion that the city code allows the council president to appoint council members to vacant seats on standing committees and designate the chairperson of each committee. However, the president may not remove a seated member of a standing committee, Koldin’s memo reads.
Mootooveren said the code isn’t clear on barring the council president from making changes to committees.
Zalewski-Wildzunas, a commercial real estate broker who is treasurer of the county Metroplex board of directors, said she’s well-suited for the two committee roles because of her background of 30-plus years in banking. She said she leads commercial lending teams.
As chairperson of Planning and Development, she said she helped the city vet its sale of $1 million in blighted city-owned properties last year. As part of that process, she said, she helped make sure the city had the income necessary to maintain the properties prior to sale.
About Mootooveren, she said, “My biggest concern is that this was an arbitrary move that it doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t know why you would take someone that has a financial background, that has a real estate background, off of the Finance Committee. I thought we would all be put in committees where we have our strengths.”
The reconfigured Finance Committee delayed city business when Commissioner Anthony Ferrari’s request Monday for a bond anticipation ordinance, to secure a favorable interest rate on capital projects, deadlocked, 2-2.
Subsequently a special Finance Committee meeting, to reconsider the bond, was called for Friday.
Meanwhile, Mootooveren said he was expecting pushback about his decisions.
“It’s unfortunate that some people took it to the next level and thinks it’s political and all these different things,” he said. “For me, it is what it is. We have to move forward” with the shorthanded panel.
“The next council president is going to take over and that person will do what he has to do,” he suggested, adding that during his eight years on the council, he’s never experienced so many vacancies.