Editorial: End phony solutions in discipline cases
There were some disturbing elements in Thursday's article about a bill that would prevent Schenectady's public safety commissioner from disciplining his officers himself instead of going through a lengthy arbitration process.
And none of them had anything to do with the legislation itself.
Schenectady officials are rightly annoyed over the Legislature's passage of the bill this year requiring certain municipalities to use arbitrators when they want to discipline a police officer. They say the arbitration process is tedious, expensive and unreliably subjective, and they'd prefer to let Police Commissioner Wayne Bennett conduct disciplinary hearings and make the decisions himself.
The Legislature actually passes the arbitrator bill every year, to the consternation of the city. But apparently, it's wrapped in a bundle of sticks and stuffed down the governor's chimney in the middle of the night without many people being aware of it. When the governor sees it, he vetoes it and sends it back to the Legislature. But the Legislature never bothers to override the veto, even though it has the votes. So it doesn't become law, and instead it all becomes a moot exercise in paper-shuffling.
You’d think city officials would be glad the legislative process regarding this bill is screwed up in their favor. But they're not.
Even though courts have generally found that cities may not have to go through arbitration, Schenectady is compelled to bring in arbitrators anyway because if it doesn't, a negative decision in a disciplinary case will likely be challenged in court.
From a taxpayer perspective, this is a losing proposition. Not only do taxpayers pay a portion of the lengthy arbitration process, they also pay the officer in question for not working while he awaits a decision (which could take a year or more with appeals), and they pay other officers to cover the disciplined officer's shifts while he’s on leave.
In addition to the cost and time, city officials aren't always happy with the decisions, which can be inconsistent among different arbitrators.
To remedy that, the city uses one particularly trustworthy arbitrator to arbitrate the cases. It's not ideal, but it's better than the alternative.
But rather than address a system that's clearly inefficient and expensive for local communities, the Legislature pretends to deal with the issue each year by passing legislation they know won't become law.
That leaves the whole process in limbo. And that's not good for anyone — taxpayers, city officials or the officers themselves.
We’re also concerned about the role our state representatives are playing in this mess. City leaders have been barking about this issue for at least the past six years and two mayoral administrations. But Sen. Hugh Farley's office claims he didn't know the city had a problem with the bill, so he just voted for it. We'd almost rather hear him say he didn't read the bill and just rubber-stamped whatever passed across his desk. That at least would have been more plausible. Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara seemed to know the city’s position, but voted for it anyway because he supported the labor agreement.
A better system that ensures a fair hearing for officers without overburdening taxpayers is in order.
Having the police commissioner be sole judge and jury over these cases may not be the fairest option for officers.
But maybe state lawmakers could require that a single arbitrator be used in all but the most complex cases, and set a time limit on how long proceedings can take — kind of a speedy-trial rule.
Maybe they could require that disciplined officers can only collect their pay during their suspensions if they win their case. That might discourage poor behavior, as well as encourage arbitrators and unions to move cases along, saving taxpayers money.
Whatever they come up with, it’s got to be better than continuing to pass phony legislation that only handcuffs and frustrates local governments. It's time lawmakers do some real work on a reasonable, fair disciplinary process.