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Mayor vetoes Schenectady council's call on City Court judges

Mayor vetoes Schenectady council's call on City Court judges

Council indicates override possible
Mayor vetoes Schenectady council's call on City Court judges
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy gives proposed budget presentation to the City Council in October 2018.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — Mayor Gary McCarthy has vetoed last week’s decision by the City Council to fight the elimination of a City Court judge position.

The council voted 4-2 during a special meeting Feb. 11 to take the side of the state Unified Court System, which has said all four Schenectady City Court judges are needed to handle the court's workload. Specifically, the City Council voted to oppose any state legislation that would reduce their numbers. 

McCarthy announced the veto Wednesday evening. 

“I understand the City Council's support for the additional judge but believe that the fourth judge is not needed,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to City Council President Ed Kosiur. “We have always looked at ways to provide cost-effective services to our residents, and I look forward to that continued dialogue.”

Judge Guido Loyola plans to retire at the end of this year, leaving one judge post available for elimination. 

City Democrats have nominated city Corporate Counsel Carl Falotico for the post.

CASELOADS DOWN

McCarthy introduced the idea of reducing the number of judges at his State of City address in January.

The number of cases heard by judges has dropped 24 percent since 2010, from more than 21,000 to about 16,000, he said. 

Criminal cases, traffic tickets, civil cases and fines are all down, according to McCarthy.

He reiterated those arguments in his statement on Wednesday. 

“All the trends in the court are down -- are reflective of our good work with building demolition efforts, home ownership incentive programs, data-driven policing and the economic development that is happening in our community,” McCarthy wrote. 

“Raise the Age” legislation, which steers juvenile offenders into Family Court, as well as proposed changes in marijuana laws and the Schenectady Police Department's implementation of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion this year, will remove additional work from the court, he said.

Furthermore, McCarthy said he wasn’t contacted by the Office of Court Administration, which he said is supposed to consult with mayors and other stakeholders every half-decade before determining the allocation of judgeships.

In defending the need for a fourth judge, a Unified Court System spokesman said last month that Schenectady City Court has annual court filings in excess of 18,000. 

McCarthy dismissed that number as baseless. 

“There’s been a lot of rhetoric from the Office of Court Administration," he told The Daily Gazette Wednesday evening in a telephone interview.

COUNCILORS REACT

Council President Ed Kosiur did not return a telephone call seeking comment late Wednesday. But he said last week that McCarthy did not consult with the council before making his proposal. 

And simply counting the number of cases doesn't factor in their complexity, how many court appearances are involved or the need for judges to be available to respond when city police make arrests for incidents like domestic violence.

He also questioned what impact the elimination of a judge would have on the court system's ability to arraign suspects in a timely manner. 

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo does not support a reduction and said having enough judges is crucial to quality-of-life issues, including prosecuting zoning and building code violations and dealing with domestic violence.

“There’s certainly no surprise the mayor and some of the council members don’t see eye to eye on this subject,” Perazzo said Wednesday evening. “I still cannot blindly support the removal of a fourth City Court judge.”

Council members Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas and John Polimeni voted against last week’s resolution, saying the council should at least wait until a requested cost-effectiveness study is complete.

“I anticipated a veto,” Polimeni said on Wednesday. “I believe (a cost-study) is needed because we’re talking hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars,” he said. “Why are we wasting taxpayer dollars if it’s not necessary?”

While judges and their staffs are paid by the state, the city is required to provide space for their chambers and courtrooms.

City Court currently operates out of courtrooms located in City Hall and at the Schenectady Police Department, an arrangement the Office of Court Administration has said is not ideal. 

In order to keep a fourth judge, the city would need to update those facilities and create an additional courtroom, a price tag McCarthy last month estimated would cost $3 million. 

The fourth judgeship was created by the state in 2013 and was first filled in 2015. 

Before that, Kosiur said last week that it was common for a judge from Saratoga Springs City Court to be assigned to Schenectady to help handle the city's workload.

But Polimeni wondered why, if there was a true need for a fourth judge, that arrangement didn’t previously spark outrage.

The City Council, which will next meet on Feb. 25, can override McCarthy’s veto with five votes.

“I imagine the council will take it up, if there’s an override or not,” said Polimeni.

Councilman Vince Riggi acknowledged the mayor has the prerogative to veto the council’s decision, however, he said he will continue to oppose a reduction. 

“I don’t agree with doing away with that position,” Riggi said on Wednesday. “I will vote to override the veto.”

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