SCHENECTADY After seven years as mayor, Brian U. Stratton is leaving City Hall.
He’s taking a job as the director of the state Canal Corporation, a position that is subsidiary to the state Thruway Authority. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday he is recommending Stratton for the job, ending weeks of speculation about Stratton’s intentions.
“I’ve achieved the things I wanted to achieve,” Stratton said, citing his discipline of police officers as a major accomplishment.
He said he told Cuomo he needs at least another month to wrap up his affairs as mayor. He wants the county’s municipalities to share police duties with the city and he just received the report outlining ways to begin that effort.
“That’s something I want to set in motion before I leave here,” he said.
Cuomo did not release a statement about why he chose Stratton for the job, but sent out a press release announcing it with quotes from other officials.
Michael Fleischer, executive director of the Thruway Authority, said in the release that Stratton was a good choice because he has “a wide range of knowledge and contacts along the Canal Corridor.”
It is likely the end of Stratton’s political career, state Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said. “Some of them try to run again. Generally speaking, usually they find themselves happier as an administrator,” he said.
That’s a sea change for a man who flew on Air Force One with the president just three weeks ago. Stratton even got to sit next to President Barack Obama on the helicopter flight to Air Force One, giving the mayor time to describe the city’s problems and urge Obama to consider such needs.
He was so proud of his national work, both in lobbying Obama over the past two years and working on policy goals with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, that city officials said they thought he would stay in politics.
But two elected city officials, who spoke frankly on the condition of anonymity, said they saw recently that Stratton was ready to give up the pressure of life in the spotlight.
They said he mainly wanted a higher salary.
“He’s taken tremendous political risks to up his pay,” one official said. “As mayor, there’s limits in terms of what the pay offered him. I think that’s a big part of it.”
Stratton, now 53, pushed hard for a raise in 2006 even though 2,000 city residents signed petitions trying to stop him. Then, he said he would take the raise if he were re-elected, a risky move because it might have turned voters against him. He won that election in a landslide. His salary is $96,906 per year, plus use of a car and his health insurance premium is 80 percent paid by the city
The anonymous city officials also said Stratton has not been entirely focused on his job in recent months.
“The budget was my first indication,” a second city official said. “He was totally disengaged. I thought it was very sloppily done — it was late, and then it wasn’t really done. And the curb fee they fussed around with for months.”
The other official agreed, saying, “Going into an election year, it was a very rough budget process. It looked very hastily done, like a guy halfway out the door. His head was elsewhere.”
They suggested Stratton’s inattention is also what led to last year’s pension scandal, in which Stratton agreed to let Fire Chief Robert Farstad convert non-pension sick and vacation time into overtime, vastly increasing the chief’s pension.
In a joint interview with Director of Administration John Paolino, Stratton insisted the change wouldn’t affect Farstad’s pension — and then seemed taken aback when Paolino said it would have a significant impact. Stratton quickly moved to stop the deal at that point.
But Stratton lost some popularity after the deal was made public.
Stratton did build public support in the past three years through his fight to discipline rogue police officers. He managed to force out eight officers, including two who had beaten a suspect, several who drove while intoxicated and others who were accused of official misdeeds, such as sleeping on the job or hindering investigations.
But Stratton’s attempts to create a new disciplinary process left many of those officers on paid suspension for more than a year, costing the city more than $800,000 in salaries for officers who weren’t working. The total bill, including legal expenses, was $1.23 million.
In the end, the mayor ended up using the city’s existing disciplinary process, which he had repeatedly said he could not use because officers would never be fired. If he had tried that route first, the city mighty not have had to pay officers to sit home for years.
Stratton fought hard to counter criticism of his methods, but Republicans and members of the newly created Alliance Party said they could hit him hard on that issue.
Still, political insiders from both sides said Stratton had nothing to worry about if he chose to run for re-election this year.
“There’s no question in my mind, if he’d run, he’d be re-elected,” Council President and Democrat Gary McCarthy said. “He instilled a vision of discipline in [the Police Department] that people didn’t think could be done.”
He also controlled taxes, McCarthy said.
In Stratton’s first budget, taxes went up 5.9 percent and added an unpopular new trash fee. The next year they went up 1.8 percent. Taxes were then cut by 2.2 percent over the next two years and kept at zero for two years. This year, taxes went up 4.9 percent.
“The overall record is quite impressive,” McCarthy said.
Councilman Thomas Della Sala added, “He had an amazing knack for talent. He brought in good people. Schenectady would be much worse if he hadn’t been mayor these last seven years.”
Respect from Farley
Farley agreed that Stratton wasn’t running from political life to avoid a re-election fight.
“I’m sure it’s not because he’s afraid he would be defeated,” Farley said.
Instead, Farley said, Stratton had to make a “life choice.”
“He has to do what fits his life. He’s raising his son by himself,” Farley said. “I wish him well. Brian’s had a great career.”
He said Stratton would have earned his father’s respect if Samuel Stratton had lived to see his son as mayor.
“I loved his father. We were very close friends,” Farley said. “He would be proud. [Brian Stratton] served with integrity and honor. He’s worked hard at his job. He’s taken it seriously. I think he’s been a good mayor. He had to make some very tough decisions and he did it.”
Council members agreed, saying it was remarkable he stayed until now. “Two terms is more than enough for anybody,” Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard said.
Della Sala added, “It’s such a stressful job. I’m sure it will be less stressful than being mayor.”
But Della Sala also said he noticed some changes in Stratton’s leadership recently.
“The biggest difference was the budget was more of an outline,” he said. “We all knew he was looking to go. There was no surprise.”
Stratton declined to discuss his motivations for leaving, except to say that he wasn’t trying to avoid a tough election campaign.
“Every re-election’s tough,” he said dismissively. “This is the beginning of a great new opportunity for me … to do the things I’ve always talked about as mayor: consolidation, economic development.”
He said he couldn’t see a way for consolidation to involve the Canal Corp., but he noted that consolidation is one of Cuomo’s main goals.
“I believe in what the governor’s doing,” he said.
Republican Peter Guidarelli, who has not yet announced whether he will run for mayor, criticized the mayor for leaving before the end of his term. He said that the decision was particularly wrong because the city is in dire fiscal straits.
“If I were the mayor, I would not vacate the post now because I believe you have an obligation,” he said. “I think it’s disingenuous to bail out.”
Stratton’s only response was to say, “I wish Mr. Guidarelli, and anyone else who may choose to run, all the best.”
Stratton is still negotiating his salary, he said. He hopes to leave office in mid-March. His position does not require state Senate confirmation, but the state Thruway Authority board must approve the appointment.