The Democrats in the City Council kicked Councilman Vince Riggi out of Monday’s budget discussion so they could secretly talk out their changes to the 2013 budget.
The council plans to vote on the final budget today at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.
Council members would not explain what budgetary items were so sensitive that they wanted to talk about them behind closed doors without Riggi, the only non-Democrat on the council.
But their discussion prior to closing the doors indicated that the big secret was their desire to get rid of Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett.
That came as a surprise to Mayor Gary McCarthy, who was not present for the secret meeting and said he had not known Bennett would be discussed. He said the council would be making “a big mistake” to get rid of Bennett.
“I see him as a key component in terms of the continued evolution of that department, from one that is struggling to one that has the potential for greatness,” he said. “We’re not going to get there if we make mediocre decisions.”
The mayor can veto the budget; a vote of 5 council members would override the veto. McCarthy would not say whether he’d veto the budget if Bennett’s position is eliminated.
Bennett would be paid $124,432 next year. The proposal to get rid of him comes just days after the highest court in the state ruled that municipalities like Schenectady can discipline their own police officers, rather than negotiating discipline with the police union.
Before the Democrats closed the meeting, they discussed the legal implications of eliminating Bennett’s job.
Some council members seemed to argue that internal discipline isn’t needed, although the union-negotiated system costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and takes months for each officer.
But Councilman Carl Erikson seemed to be arguing for a cheaper commissioner by giving the title to an existing employee.
“We don’t have to pay him $100,000 a year, we could pay him a dollar,” Erikson said.
Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo disagreed, noting that discipline is a specialized task for which the council was unlikely to find a cheap hire. She stressed that the council didn’t have to keep Bennett unless it wanted to “proceed with discipline the way it’s been proposed.”
She said she had argued the point with Finance Commissioner Ismat Alam, who insisted that disciplinary authority was worth the cost of having a commissioner.
According to city law, only the commissioner is allowed to hold public hearings to decide whether officers are guilty of misconduct. If Bennett’s job is taken out of the budget, the disciplinary process that the city has fought for years to establish will be stopped, Corporation Counsel John Polster said.
When Erikson proposed giving the title to the next police chief — who has not yet been determined — Polster said that wouldn’t work.
“It’s the difference between the prosecutor and the judge,” he said.
Erikson suggested the fire chief.
“He just couldn’t discipline firefighters,” he said.
When that was nixed — because a commissioner needs to discipline all public safety employees — he said someone ought to be able to do it.
“Some people can sweep and shovel,” he said.
But Perazzo and Councilwoman Margaret King said the city could simply get rid of Bennett and stick with the current disciplinary process.
That presumably would please the police union, which has sued the city repeatedly to try to stop Bennett from being allowed to discipline his employees.
Locally, the police union controls the Conservative Party, which used to endorse Democrats. But last year and this year, it has endorsed candidates running against the Democrats.
This year, the party endorsed Richard Patierne, who is running against Councilwoman Marion Porterfield in next week’s election.
Porterfield did not say publicly whether she supported eliminating Bennett’s position. But she participated in the closed-door discussion.
When asked how she could support a closed meeting on such an important topic, she backtracked quickly, professing ignorance to the plan for a secret meeting. She said she didn’t want to kick out Riggi or the public, which was also excluded from the meeting. But Council President Denise Brucker told Porterfield that she knew about the plan and hadn’t objected.
Porterfield did not try to persuade her colleagues to keep the meeting open.
Her opponent, Patierne, said he was shocked that Porterfield went along with her colleagues on the secret meeting.
“I can’t even imagine that happened,” he said, saying it was a “turning point” toward a non-transparent government. The council has not held a secret meeting since 2007, when it did so to argue with county officials over control of a joint affirmative action director.
Patierne said holding a secret meeting on the budget — a far more serious issue than the affirmative action director — was a mistake. He said the council must work together to resolve what he described as “probably one of the most important budget decisions facing the city.”
He also questioned why the council would discuss budget plans in secret.
“Is there something to hide?” he asked.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, also condemned the decision.
“What they plan to do is legal, but in my opinion it represents the worst in public policy,” Freeman said. “What could be more important to the citizens of Schenectady than an open discussion of the budget?”
Councilman Carl Erikson said he wouldn’t mind keeping the meeting open. But he, like Porterfield, did not try to persuade the rest of the council.
Brucker, Perazzo and King insisted on kicking Riggi out so that they could meet secretly.
Under the state’s Open Meetings Law, they could legally meet that way if they met as a caucus. Only members of one party are allowed into a caucus, and Riggi is not a Democrat.
The Democrats said they had to have a secret meeting so they could confidentially discuss which employees should lose their jobs in next year’s budget.
However, department heads have been openly discussing possible job eliminations throughout the public budget sessions. After a member of the media challenged the closed meeting, Perazzo explained.
“I may have a suggestion other people don’t agree with,” she said, adding that she wanted the other Democrats on the council to weigh in on those suggestions before making them publicly.
But she argued that the council would not simply decide on its budget Monday night.
“Tomorrow night we need to have another discussion,” she said. “It’s not like we’re making all the decisions on the budget tonight and then voting on it.”
Riggi said that was exactly what they were doing. He said the decision would stop him from trying to persuade them to make the budget alterations he had in mind, while also preventing them from proposing ideas to him.
“I’m an elected official. I’m representing the people of Schenectady,” he said. “It isn’t fair to the taxpayers and the people who voted for me.”