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What you need to know for 01/18/2017

Lawmakers try to limit power of Sch'dy official

Lawmakers try to limit power of Sch'dy official

Yet again, the state Legislature has passed a bill that would stop Schenectady’s public safety commi
Lawmakers try to limit power of Sch'dy official
Schenectady Public Safety Commissioner Wayne E. Bennett talks to families during a swearing-in ceremony in the rotunda at Schenectady City Hall in 2013.

Yet again, the state Legislature has passed a bill that would stop Schenectady’s public safety commissioner from disciplining the police under his command.

Three governors have vetoed the bill in the past seven years, and the Legislature has never voted to override the vetoes, despite passing the bill with many more votes than needed for an override.

So city officials aren’t worried that the bill will go into effect this time — but they are annoyed.

“In the infinite wisdom of the Legislature, they apparently passed the bill at the last minute,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “I’m disappointed that it would go through without attempting to get any input.”

McCarthy said the bill took him by surprise. It was proposed on June 10 and passed on June 19.

Schenectady’s state senator once again voted in favor of the bill, but said through an aide that he had no idea the issue was controversial.

This is not the first time he’s said that.

When the bill was passed four times in three years, city officials complained and criticized their representatives at length. Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said in response that he didn’t realize it would be a big deal.

This time, aide Peter Edman said the bill was offered amid a host of “noncontroversial” bills.

“It just wasn’t flagged, I guess, as one of the controversial bills,” he said.

He also repeated a claim Farley has made repeatedly after voting on this bill — that he hadn’t heard from anyone opposed to it.

“At the time it came up, at the very end of the session, we didn’t hear from anybody,” Edman said.

The two assemblymen who represent Schenectady — Angelo Santabarbara and Phil Steck — also voted for the legislation.

The bill would require Schenectady, New York City and other municipalities to use arbitrators when they want to fire or otherwise discipline a police officer.

Schenectady Commissioner Wayne Bennett wants to be able to quickly call a hearing, consider the arguments on both sides and make a decision himself, rather than waiting for an arbitrator.

He’s argued that arbitrators produce inconsistent discipline, because the same person isn’t ruling on each case, and they take longer to make a decision. Some officers who faced discipline in Schenectady were paid to stay home for a year or more while they waited — a cost that added up.

In 2008, former Mayor Brian U. Stratton also told the state Legislature that the city sometimes could not get its officers to behave because arbitrators consistently ruled in the officers’ favor.

At one point, the city even hired a lobbyist to tackle such issues at the state Legislature. But in recent years, city officials have pursued the case through the courts, where they have won on some key issues.

McCarthy has said he was not going to bother trying to get the city’s state representatives on his side.

In 2008, as a city councilman, he noted that the Legislature had always passed the bill with huge margins — yet did not try to override the governor when he vetoed it.

“If the Legislature wanted to overturn that, the votes were clearly there,” McCarthy said in 2008. “It’s all a sham. I’m not going to play into the charade.”

This time, only two people voted no in each chamber.

In a released statement, Santabarbara said, “I supported this bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, because it stands for a fundamental concept that you should be held accountable for the things you agree to, whether it is benefits, duties or discipline procedures. Police officers, like any public or private employee, should not be denied rights guaranteed to them in a labor contract.”

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