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Schenectady NAACP calls on city to boost diversity training

Schenectady NAACP calls on city to boost diversity training

Request follows comments seen as racially insensitive
Schenectady NAACP calls on city to boost diversity training
Schenectady City Council member John Polimeni at his swearing-in in 2016.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — Renee Bradley usually watches City Council meetings from home. 

But she felt compelled to attend Monday night’s session after a city council member made a remark widely interpreted as racially-insensitive last week. 

Councilman John Polimeni appeared to nearly use the word “colored” when delivering comments praising newly elected Council President John Mootooveren, the first-ever Guyanese to hold the position.

“We have four women as members of our council,” Polimeni said. “We have two color — people of color — and we are very fortunate to have such diversity on the council.” 

The term "colored,” which is considered to be out-of-date and pejorative, drew instant criticism.

Bradley was among the attendees calling for diversity training for city officials after Poliemni’s remark. 

“It was an ugly micro-aggression made verbally on Mr. Polimeni’s part, whether intentional or unintentional,” Bradley said. 

Nearly a dozen members of Schenectady NAACP addressed lawmakers, a coordinated effort that saw attendees reading portions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in synchronized order. 

After using their three minutes of allocated speaking time, speakers concluded with a unified message — “I ask you not refer to me as a colored person, but as a person of color” — before the next speaker resumed reading the speech. 

Polimeni apologized for his remarks, but inflamed tensions by telling the Times Union he believed the criticism was politically-motivated and generated by the Schenectady NAACP. 

“The problem was marginalizing that comment,” said Schenectady NAACP President Dr. Odo Butler. “It was something that upset members of our group.”

Others defended Polimeni, who was sworn in for a second term last week. 

City resident Ed Varno recalled the lawmaker’s efforts to revitalize the city’s ailing Little League culture. 

“He’s not what you’re accusing him of,” Varno said. “You know how much he’s helped.”

David Giacalone, a frequent Polimeni critic, said the lawmaker instantly corrected his flub.

“I think that type of hypersensitivity cannot help the community come together,” he said.

Kent Goldwire said the Schenectady NAACP will provide a diversity consultant to the city if needed.

“Everything rises and falls based on leadership,” he said.

Mayor Gary McCarthy said the city has provided internal training.

“We look to do awareness-raising -- how to work with different partners and how to create an atmosphere conducive to everybody’s well-being and enjoyment in the community,” McCarthy said on Tuesday.

Polimeni again attempted to apologize on Monday, but City Council protocol requires him to face the council president — not the audience, which booed him from behind. 

“My words got screwed up,” he said. “They weren’t even close to my intent, and to those that were offended, I sincerely apologize.”

SIMMERING TENSION

The tense environment appeared to be fueled by several undercurrents, including recent revisions to public comment rules and the internal dynamics governing City Council leadership. 

Councilwoman Marion Porterfield’s colleagues in the all-Democratic body acknowledged withholding their support for the leadership position because she endorsed several grassroots candidates not backed by the city Democratic Committee in previous election cycles. 

Those candidates were minorities, and Porterfield, who is black, has pushed for more diversity on city and county elected bodies. 

Chad Putman said the lack of diversity led him to leave the Democratic Party. 

“She is inspiring the next generation of individuals to be part of the political process, to get off the sidelines and get involved,” Putman said. “And I think what the party is doing is punishing her.”

When it comes to speaking protocol, new provisions adopted 18 months ago require speakers to observe “proper decorum.”

This means residents cannot make personal attacks on council members, make “slanderous or obscene remarks,” make threats or do anything that interferes with the meeting.

The revisions were presented in 2018 by then-City Council President Ed Kosiur, who cut off a speaker criticizing Mootooveren. 

A similar scenario unfolded on Monday when city resident Mary McClaine said Mootooveren was “riddled with scandal,” appearing to refer to when the lawmaker allegedly threw a drink in someone’s face and was charged with harassment in 2018, charges that were ultimately dismissed.

“Ms. Porterfield should have had that seat,” said McClaine shortly after Kosiur ordered her microphone be cut off.

After Mootooveren temporarily tabled the meeting, Kosiur ventured into a closet where the audio-visual equipment that broadcasts the meetings online and on public television is stored. 

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo, who backed Porterfield’s leadership attempt, said she didn’t believe McClaine’s comments were out-of-order.

“It wasn’t hearsay; it wasn’t third-party and it wasn’t inaccurate,” Perazzo said. “When you take a leadership role, you have to be prepared to have your life on display.

“I hope this is not an indication of what’s to come in the next two years.”

Perazzo’s response drew a sharp rebuke from Kosiur.

“I’m very disappointed at you for making these comments,” Kosiur said. “When they come after one of our council members, that’s disrespect.” 

Mootooveren didn’t publicly address McClaine’s remarks. 

The heated discussion came the day before a group of community organizations, including the Schenectady NAACP,  Schenectady County Human Rights Commission’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition and Capital District Area Labor Federation convened for a panel discussion Tuesday evening at SUNY Schenectady to discuss economic justice in the black community.

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