GENEVA — Ward 5 City Councilor Laura Salamendra’s activism long predates her election to City Council in 2018, but her actions in response to the shooting of a parolee by a parole officer in Canandaigua in early November drew a sharp rebuke from the city’s Board of Ethics.
Salamendra counters that she was simply using her free speech rights under the First Amendment.
The board said it made determinations on three separate complaints regarding the outspoken councilor in the aftermath of the shooting of Supreme “Chanel” Hines, who was shot three times by a parole officer attempting to arrest Hines for a parole violation.
Sheriff Kevin Henderson said at the time that state parole officer Jeffrey Smith and an unnamed deputy sheriff went to the motel to arrest Hines for violation of parole for allegedly stealing liquor from stores in Geneva. Henderson said Hines got into a vehicle and struck him. The parole officer, Henderson said, was on the hood of the car when he fired seven times into the windshield, striking Hines three times.
Hines’ mother, who lives in Geneva, disputes the sheriff’s account and said witnesses told her Hines was backing away during the incident.
The ethics board consists of Chair James Petropoulos, Vice Chair Rebecca Czajkowski, Secretary Nathan Miller, Victor Nelson and Sharon Dutcher. They made note of Salamendra’s reference to the incident at the Nov. 4 Council meeting at which she said: “I would just like to say that I stand in solidarity with the family of Chanel Hines, who was gunned down by Ontario County parole officer Jeff Smith (actually a state officer) in Canandaigua on Tuesday morning, as they demand justice and an end to a system that punishes a stolen bottle of liquor with seven bullets and three to her chest. I’m done.”
The board criticized her for divulging the name of the parole officer, which they said had not yet been released to the public by the Sheriff’s Office.
The Board of Ethics said Salamendra was in violation of tenets 1 (act in the public interest), 3 (conduct of public officials), 5 (conduct of public meetings), 10 (confidential information), 11 (use of public resources) and 12 (representation of private interests).
“Councilor Salamendra made a public statement based on hearsay that suggested, to all watching via the internet and on Finger Lakes Television, that Chanel Hines was shot because she stole liquor,” the board said. “This omitting of facts intentionally misled the public. Intentionally lying or omitting information to fit an agenda during a public meeting, while acting as a public official, is not acting in the public interest.
“Not only did Councilor Salamendra do this, but she did so at a Geneva City Council meeting during a time period in which she should have been reporting on her committee projects. Broadcasted on Finger Lakes Television, the board determined that Salamendra misused public resources to inappropriately disclose information that directly contradicted the statement of her colleague, Ontario County Sheriff Kevin Henderson. Additionally, as per the New York State Open Meetings/Records Law, Councilor Salamendra violated Tenet 10 by revealing the name of a law enforcement officer in an open public meeting. She is also in violation of Tenet 12 for appearing on behalf of the family of Chanel Hines during a City Council meeting.”
In a second complaint, the board said Salamendra, posting as a city councilor, made 24 Facebook posts on Hines from Nov. 3 to 9, citing what they called “defamatory language used towards city colleagues, including police officers, and specifically the Ontario County sheriff. Councilor Salamendra, posting within her capacity as a City Councilor, charged that the incidents were motivated by both racism and transphobia without providing either concrete evidence or a statement by the Ontario County Sheriff’s office to that effect.”
The Board of Ethics said those actions violated Tenets 1, 3, 10, and 16 (positive workplace environment).
Lastly, the board cited her for attending a Canandaigua protest on the shooting held Nov. 14 where in “subsequent videos and photos posted to Facebook, Councilor Salamendra can be seen among a crowd where signs read ‘Parole Officers are Pigs Too’ and ‘You’re about to lose your job, Jeff Smith.’ Councilor Salamendra led the group in chants in support of Chanel Hines.”
The board said “numerous people at the protest wore shirts for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the political group of which Councilor Salamendra is a member. Councilor Salamendra, using an amplifier, spoke to the attendees, naming the parole officer and once again making unsubstantiated statements that there were racist and transphobic motivations involved.”
The Board of Ethics said it found Salamendra violated tenets 1 (act in the public interest) and 3 (conduct of public officials).
The board said it requested a written response from Salamendra on three occasions, but she did not respond. Salamendra disputes this.
The board recommended she be censured for the first two complaints and issued a warning for the third.
Geneva Mayor Steve Valentino, who read the board’s determinations, said no action against Salamendra is planned at this point.
Salamandra disputes the ethics board’s determinations and criticism.
“I know that my discussion of the Chanel Hines situation is seen as unrelated to Geneva politics, but I respectfully disagree with that finding,” she said in a statement read at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that she provided to the Finger Lakes Times. “I was elected on a platform of police accountability, and as an activist. The mother of Chanel Hines lives in my ward and reached out to me specifically as her ward councilor. Injustice within the Ontario County Parole Office is an issue that certainly impacts some residents of Ward 5. And I respectfully submit that it is not up to the ethics committee to decide for the people of Ward 5 what issues are important to them.
“At the November city council meeting, I expressed my solidarity with Chanel Hines and her family, just as so many other elected officials around the country are speaking out against police brutality and for Black lives. Not one word I uttered was a lie. It is not unethical to tell the truth. It is not unethical to engage in political speech as a politician. It is quite simply what the people who voted for me elected me to do.”
She took issue with other points as well:
• “The ethics committee claims that I broke confidentiality in naming the parole officer who gunned down Chanel Hines. I am not an employee of the Ontario County sheriff’s department, nor did I receive any confidential information from law enforcement or city staff. In fact, Jeff Smith’s name was published on Nov. 3 by WHAM-TV in Rochester. I think it sets a dangerous precedent to assume that the Ontario County sheriff has the authority to prevent the public from hearing any information he deems confidential. I can think of no issue where open, public debate is more important than issues of potential discrimination and police violence.”
• “The ethics committee claims I violated ethics tenants 1 and 3 for engaging in free speech at a protest and on my Facebook page. While I understand that some may not like my political speech or activities, their dislike cannot warrant limiting my First Amendment rights. The committee’s findings raise crucial constitutional questions. Among them: Are councilors permitted to speak on matters of public concern? Are councilors permitted to attend rallies? If so, which ones? Only rallies that explicitly support law enforcement?”
• “I am committed to engaging in ethical behavior and speech as a city councilor. And I appreciate feedback on how my work appears to others. It must be the case, though, that the ethics committee does not exist to censor the speech of duly elected councilors representing their constituents. The ethics committee does and has the potential to do important work for our city, but in order for that to happen, the ethics complaint process cannot be used as a vehicle to selectively limit protected political speech.”
As for not responding to ethics board inquiries, Salamendra said she had good reasons.
“I did not meet with them but planned to submit my answer in writing,” she said Thursday. “I had to rush to Penn Yan because my sister was having contractions and realized on the way home that I hadn’t submitted in time. They told me that a decision had been made after that. I don’t know why they are saying I had three opportunities.”