Now before the state Legislature is a matter of critical importance to Schenectady, a bill that could determine whether it will run its police department or continue to be run by it. This is a test for the city’s representatives: Sen. Hugh Farley, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco and Assemblyman George Amedore. Will they vote for the interests of the biggest municipality in their district or for the special interest, the police unions here and around the state that give them and their fellow lawmakers political support and campaign cash?
Farley has already failed the test, quietly voting along with all his fellow senators last month to undo a 2006 Court of Appeals decision that gave municipalities like Schenectady, with a police commissioner written into their charter, the right to exercise discipline directly over their officers themselves without recourse to state-appointed arbitrators.
Farley offered a number of lame excuses, including that he hadn’t heard directly from city officials this year (they didn’t even know the bill was being voted on), or last year after he voted the same way. Following last year’s vote, he said he didn’t think the bill was controversial and hadn’t really given it much thought. But since then, Mayor Brian Stratton and Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett have made their feelings quite clear. At this point, Farley can’t plausibly maintain that he doesn’t know where the city stands on this issue.
Farley also seemed out of touch in explaining why he favors arbitration. It avoids lawsuits, he says. Never mind that binding arbitration probably has cost the city more — both from being unable to properly manage its officers, and from having to pay court judgments for their misdeeds in some cases — than a few lawsuits ever would. And lawsuits are far from inevitable, because any disciplinary action by the police commissioner would be appealable in the courts.
Farley also argues that arbitrators don’t tend to favor the police in their rulings. But if he knew anything about Schenectady’s history with problem officers, he would know this is not the case. Indeed, at first he seemed to think that the city has been operating under a police commissioner discipline system all along (and it hasn’t worked, he told a reporter, thus the need for arbitration). He later insisted that he had only meant since the 2006 court decision.
As for Tedisco, he said earlier this week that he was studying the bill, even though it is the same one he voted “yea” on the past two years. Amedore, a first-term Republican assemblyman, said the same thing. But considering that Tedisco is his mentor and his party’s leader in the Assembly, Amedore could be expected to vote the same way as Tedisco.
Yesterday they both came out against the bill, which is certainly welcome news. But Tedisco still couldn’t resist blasting Stratton and City Council President Mark Blanchfield for not negotiating this issue with the police union during contract negotiations. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, since the fact that police discipline has been treated as a contractual matter in the past, is the problem. And the Court of Appeals decision appears to say that Schenectady doesn’t have to treat it that way any longer (although the PBA is contesting Bennett’s assumption of authority and could ultimately prevail.)
But it now looks like the Assembly isn’t going to be voting on the bill soon, anyway. The police unions have asked its sponsor, Assemblyman Peter Abbate, to hold off so they can see where new Gov. David Paterson stands and perhaps negotiate to avoid another veto.
One would have to see how far the unions would be willing to go, but it’s doubtful they would submit to the kind of authority the law now gives police commissioners. That’s the kind of authority they need, and what Paterson should insist on.