GENEVA — An often-dysfunctional City Council may have hit a new low Monday night, when a session focused on police staffing issues erupted into a shouting match between a councilor and members of the public and ended with one councilor walking out.
The work session is quickly becoming the talk of Geneva social media. Its broadcast on YouTube edged to nearly 3,000 views as of early Tuesday night.
The discussion on police staffing was initiated by At-large Councilor Frank Gaglianese III, who said members of City Council have damaged the police department to the point that it is having difficulty attracting and retaining officers.
He said the “power of five votes, which holds the majority by this Council, has weakened our police force due to bad choices, lack of support and cutting positions (and) in turn has fractured the morale, have made officers feel unappreciated and just plain disrespected.”
Police Chief Mike Passalacqua, who attended the work session, agreed with Gaglianese.
“Our current staffing level is one that I have never seen in the 18 years and six days I have been employed here,” he said in prepared remarks. “Currently, I can say with 100% confidence that we have experienced the loss of three great officers within the last six weeks due to the climate that this sitting Council has brought into the workforce within the police department.”
He said that two of the three that left “also voiced personal reasons for why they were leaving as well.”
“Between exit interviews which I conduct in person and a resignation letter from one employee not wanting to be the next on the ‘chopping block,’ we are losing and will continue to lose qualified, dedicated officers if the conditions surrounding the police department stay the same as they are today with this council.”
Passalacqua said Council “has made the city workforce feel as though this is an us vs. them mentality. That does no good for the betterment of this city or the people it employs. As I told a councilor in a private meeting, your words matter. Your words affect the entire workforce in this city,” Passalacqua said. “Your comments matter. … Officers do not trust that they will be fairly and unbiasedly critiqued by this Council should they be involved in a critical incident. This type of mistrust is extremely dangerous for the officer, the person the officer is dealing with and other members of the community. This Council needs to begin backing their police department and not using uneducated decisions and other inaccuracies to govern this department.”
Passalacqua noted that the city has spent $92,000 in overtime this year, mostly because of staffing shortages that have resulted in patrol officers having difficulty taking time off.
He said the staffing issues are not short-term. Two new recruits need to attend academy and get department training and won’t be on the streets until March 2022 at best, while a host of command officers are heading to retirement within the next two years.
In comments after Passalacqua spoke, Ward 2 Councilor Bill Pealer said there is no debate that some City Council members have not supported the police department. He expressed regret for comments he made early in his tenure when he questioned the benefits package police were receiving, which he said “made it sound like you’re not worthy of them.”
And he expressed concern that city patrols are at a level in which a single incident could leave another area of the city unprotected.
But Ward 5 Councilor Laura Salamendra, a frequent critic of the city’s policing, said it’s time for Council to take another look at department staffing.
“This Council has decided on a new policy for Geneva moving forward, and what we want is more for people and less for the police department,” she said. “We believe that investing in the people of this city is what makes us more safe.”
Salamendra said that if Geneva police officers don’t want to be subject to greater scrutiny envisioned by the Police Review Board — which Passalacqua said is not the reason cops are leaving — they can go.
“I say, goodbye,” she said. “This department is going to be held to the local law (that created the PRB).”
But when Salamendra suggested Passalacqua and Lt. Jeff Potter, who accompanied the chief, leave after councilor questions were finished, Pealer, seated next to her, got up and walked out of the meeting. Bedlam ensued, with members of the public shouting at her and she at them.
“You are not the whole of Geneva!” Salamendra screamed at the crowd, which included Mike Pinco, head of Geneva United, which has criticized the need for a Police Review Board.
Valentino eventually shut the meeting down amid shouts, with At-Large Councilor Anthony Noone, a critic of Salamendra, screaming at councilors John Pruett, Tom Burrall, Jan Regan and Ken Camera.
“You guys are the ones who allowed this to happen by not censuring her,” he said.