GENEVA — Among a number of police-reform measures passed by City Council July 1, a resolution to set in motion the creation of a police accountability board was hailed as a key victory by Geneva’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Council voted 5-4 to set an Aug. 5 public hearing on a local law that would create such a board. However, nearly a month after that meeting, some councilmembers, the city administration and city attorney are at loggerheads over issues that include wording of the local law, as well as the process by which it would be crafted.
The city administration and the mayor are recommending that the hearing be delayed until more work can be done, but a majority of councilors want to move ahead on a draft crafted by the Black Lives Matter: The People’s Peaceful Protest.
The group, which largely penned the reform measures passed by Council earlier this month, has created, after some tweaks, a proposed local law that it decided to submit to the city, knowing that City Attorney Emil Bove was tasked with drafting a document that would outline the police accountability board, including its functions and powers.
However, Bove said Tuesday that he has not created a local law in part because he has not received ample input from Council. He said he continues to have misgivings about crafting such a local law because he doesn’t believe the city is following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s directives on police reform, which include ensuring that a wide scope of stakeholders — from the police chief, to police unions, the district attorney’s and public defender to community groups — have input into the process.
“I specifically said (at Council’s July 1 meeting) the public hearing should not be scheduled,” Bove said.
Under the People’s Peaceful Protest most updated draft, the all-volunteer police accountability board would be granted powers to conduct independent investigations of complaints against police, subpoena witnesses and discipline officers, among other components.
Bove had expressed opposition to giving the PAB disciplinary powers because he didn’t think it would pass legal muster.
However, PPP spokesman Adam Fryer said that its local law draft has been tweaked to state that the PAB can only recommend disciplinary actions, but that it is up to the police chief and city manager to mete out punishment, if any. However, he did add that if the PAB finds the disciplinary actions unacceptable, the chief and the city manager must be held accountable.
Fryer said it appears that the city is purposely creating obstacles to the creation of the board.
“What has the city attorney been doing all month since the July 1st meeting?” he said. “Within that time, unpaid members of the community have been able to put our heads together, reach out to stakeholders and draft legislation generally supported by experts that have reviewed it. … The PPP would like to know how City Council will hold the city attorney accountable for not producing the local law as directed by the resolution passed at the July 1st meeting in order to hold a public hearing. ... The PPP demands the city uphold their obligation to the ratified resolution to hold that public hearing set for Aug 5th and have the PPP’s proposal on the table as at least one of the options for the discussion. And lastly, the PPP wants to see City Council vote ‘yes’ on a PAB that has teeth, independent from Geneva Police Department.”
Ward 4 Councilor Ken Camera said five members of Council — himself, Tom Burrall (Ward 1), Jan Regan (Ward 3), Laura Salamendra (Ward 5), and John Pruett (Ward 6) — support using the PPP’s local law draft as part of the public hearing.
He said the document drafted by PPP can be a good starting point, and that it will most likely get tweaks, and he has some of his own.
“I’m sure there will be amendments made,” said Regan, adding that Council should use the PPP’s draft local “to get us moving along.”
For instance, Camera does not think the proposed accountability board, made up of volunteers, can perform all the functions, including investigations. He wants police to perform that function and provide information to the board.
Regan said Council owes it to the people to move on with the hearing next week.
“We had a resolution to hold a public hearing and it passed,” she said. “I think we have to be true to that.”
She said she believes the city should have been able to get a draft ready.
“There was plenty of opportunity for that to happen,” she said.
However, late Tuesday, the Finger Lakes Times received a memo Bove sent to Council and administration recommending the hearing be delayed.
Among his reasons:
• “The documents were not prepared by the city attorney as required by the City Charter Section 7.5.”
• “There was no written local law in existence or before the City Council on July 1, 2020, when the resolution scheduling the public hearing on a Police Accountability Board was passed.”
• “The city attorney recommended the resolution scheduling the public hearing not be passed.”
• “The documents were not designated as the local law to be considered at the public hearing by vote at a regular or special meeting of the City Council.”
• “The city attorney does not approve the proposed local law (the one authored by the PPP).”
• “The direction the five councilors gave to schedule the public hearing on the documents was not passed at regular or special meeting of the City Council.”
Stated Bove: “These defects cannot be cured so as to allow the public hearing to be scheduled and a defensible local law passed. Under these circumstances a public hearing cannot be scheduled. It would be best to restart the process at the Aug. 5, 2020 meeting with a proposed local law prepared by the city attorney and a resolution scheduling a public hearing. The public hearing does not have to be held on the same night as a regular council meeting.”
It was unclear Tuesday whether Council would abide by Bove’s recommendations.
Mayor Steve Valentino said no one is purposely delaying the effort to create a PAB.
“I am not stonewalling and never would,” Valentino said by email on Tuesday.
He said the “whole situation has less to do with the contents of documents and more to do with following procedures that allow stakeholders input on such an important topic. Council has been contacted by several community members and the NAACP, along with direction from the city manager and legal to consider the governor’s guidelines when implementing police reform measures. That is not being done at this time. We have received a local law from a citizen (and) are rushing to put it on the agenda because of a vote last month for a public hearing. We are leaving out several stakeholders who could provide valuable input and support that would make the local law a document to live by and create the desired change to eliminate police violence and racial targeting. My concerns are severe that Council will not take into consideration the impact of their votes and possible burdens on the city of Geneva taxpayers by incurring extensive legal fees by not being inclusive and fully vetting the process.”
City Manager Sage Gerling said that is her intention as well and denied the administration is trying to block the implementation of the police accountability board.
“I hear frustrations from some of City Council and the People’s Peaceful Protest that a local law developed by the city attorney with guidance from Council and stakeholder input is not ready for the public hearing Council approved to be held on Aug. 5th,” she said by email. “I hear the urgency to move quickly and can see how any slowdown might be interpreted as trying to stall a process. In my administrative role, I must make sure that we are following procedures correctly to make sure that any local law can be implemented and work effectively, even if it ultimately means delaying the public hearing and creating disappointment.”
Gerling said she has presented a draft resolution for Council to consider that she maintains is the best way to address police reform in the city.
The draft includes the development of an action plan in accordance with Cuomo’s directive; a police oversight entity; a body camera policy review task force; and a police budget advisory board.
“I want to make sure that at the end of the day or this decade, all of these efforts from so many groups and residents strengthen police and community relations,” she said. “If we do not take every opportunity to bring everyone in Geneva closer together, then we have lost an opportunity to lean into our city’s vision and values.”