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Johnstown police chief faces hearing

Monday, May 9, 2011
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— A closed-door state Civil Service Law Hearing has been scheduled for May 12 to decide the fate of Police Chief Greg Horning, who faces unspecified disciplinary charges that could result in his termination.

Johnstown’s labor attorney Elayne Gold said Mayor Sarah Slingerland has appointed an arbitrator, Clifton Park resident Peter Prosper, to preside over the hearing.

Prosper will weigh the city’s evidence against Horning and his defense of the charges and then recommend one, and only one, of five possible punishments: a fine not to exceed $200, a letter of reprimand, a demotion in title, a suspension in pay of no more than 60 days or termination.

Horning has already been suspended without pay for two 30-day stretches, one that started in January and another beginning in April. The rest of the time he’s been on paid administrative leave since Sept. 10, receiving his full salary and benefits plus a buy-out of $10,014 worth of his vacation, sick, holiday and personal time.

Gold said the two unpaid suspensions were for unrelated reasons, and the city isn’t revealing either disciplinary charge. She said the city could technically seek separate punishments for each charge but in this case has rolled both charges together into one case against Horning.

New York state Civil Service Law Section 50a obligates local governments to keep confidential any personnel records “used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers unless they have written approval from the employee to release the information. Such records are also immune to New York Freedom of Information Law requests.

Gold said the charges against Horning relate to his administrative duties as a department head for the city and are not criminal charges.

Montgomery County District Attorney James “Jed” Conboy was appointed special prosecutor by Fulton County Supreme Court Judge Polly Hoye to look into criminal allegations Horning shoved one of Johnstown’s police officers July 1 during a confrontation at Horning’s home. Conboy closed the investigation in February after the officer dropped the charges.

During the last year of his active duty, Horning was also involved in a feud with Johnstown’s police union, which filed improper practice charges against Horning and the city for his ban on the use of cellphones by police officers on duty and for alleged retaliation against the officers after the feud was publicized in news reports. The union has withdrawn the retaliation improper practice charge but has retained the right to file it again should the city restore Horning to active duty.

Gold said the Civil Service Law hearing will function like a closed door trial, which could take several days, with the city and Horning being able to call forth witnesses and cross-examine evidence. She said the proceedings can only be opened to the public if Horning chooses to open them.

Horning, who has an unlisted phone number, could not be reached for comment.

If Prosper rules in the city’s favor he will recommend to Slingerland one of the five possible punishments, but Slingerland doesn’t have to follow his recommendation.

“The city actually makes the final determination, not the hearing officer. The hearing officer’s role is to be the finder of fact and give a recommendation back to the city,” Gold said. “The city can go further than the hearing officer’s recommendation, but it would have to justify that in its opinion, its final determination.”

Gold said Horning will have the right to appeal to the court system any punishment given him. His appeal would begin at the New York state Supreme Court Appellate Division level. She said if the city chooses to terminate Horning the city won’t have to pay him anymore unless he files an appeal and the courts rule in his favor. If terminated he would not be paid during the appeals process, but if he’s successful the city could be forced to pay him for the time period he was fired and resume paying him thereafter.

If the punishment is less than termination, the city will have to continue paying Horning his full salary for not working for however long it wishes to bar him from active duty. Gold said there is no legal limit to how long the city can keep Horning on paid administrative leave.

Johnstown will be represented in the Civil Service Law hearing by Michael Cuevas, an attorney at Gold’s law firm. Gold said the hearing will likely begin at about 10 a.m. and will take place at city hall.

 
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