NISKAYUNA — The Niskayuna Town Board held a special meeting Wednesday evening held mostly behind closed doors, a day after Town Comptroller Paul Sebesta was suspended over allegations he wore blackface in a photo two years ago.
Sebesta has not been officially identified by town officials, but a group called Progressive Schenectady named him in bringing concerns about the photo to the attention of town leadership earlier this week, and town officials have responded to the group.
Sebesta, a 32-year town employee who earned nearly $130,000 last year and one of its top administrators, has been suspended, and an independent investigation launched, town officials said. Sebesta is also the town’s director of human resources.
Town Supervisor Yasmine Syed announced the suspension in a press release issued late Tuesday night, and the Town Board followed up with an executive session on personnel issues Wednesday evening.
According to Syed’s release, the Town Board received the report Monday that alleged “a Facebook post of an appointed official showed the employee in blackface.” The Facebook post has since been taken down, but Progressive Schenectady said there are screenshots of it.
“Wearing blackface has long been seen as a demeaning reinforcement of stereotypes, and this behavior by, not just a town official, but by the director of human resources is unconscionable and needs to be addressed,” Progressive Schenectady wrote in a notification to the town.
“In any context, the use of blackface is offensive and unacceptable,” Syed responded to the group in an email. “A profoundly offensive image, such as the one you have described, is not in line with the workplace culture that I have strived to form at Town Hall: one of dignity, respect for all, and human decency. I do not, in any way, condone the use of blackface, whether intentional or unintentional, or any behavior that degrades members of our community.”
“One cannot separate blackface from its history of oppression,” Town Board member Rosemary Jaquith Perez wrote to the group. “It is an ignorant and degrading practice which prolongs its racist legacy. It cannot be tolerated.”
Board member Bill McPartlon also responded, saying the town must have a “zero tolerance for racism.”
“I do not condone or accept abhorrent acts that demean or harm others based on race, sex, ability, or who they love,” board member Denise Murphy McGraw said on Wednesday. “This applies first and foremost to those of us who have the honor of working for the taxpayers of Niskayuna everyday.”
Sebesta could not be reached for comment.
On Monday afternoon, the board called an emergency executive session and directed an investigation be done by outside legal counsel. “In accordance with Section 406 of the Town’s Employee Handbook, the town has suspended the employee pending the outcome of the investigation, given the gravity of the allegations and in light of the employee’s position of authority within the town,” the town’s press release said.
“In any context, the use of blackface has racist connotations and is offensive and unacceptable,” the release continued. “Equality and inclusivity are the standard for our community and our town offices and employees.”
The board will take appropriate action once the outside investigation is complete, Syed said.
“We are grateful to the members of our community who provided this report and encourage anyone who sees racism or discrimination to say something so we can address it,” the release concluded.
“We’re happy specifically with Supervisor Syed’s response,” said Lynell Englemyer, a member of Progressive Schenectady. “That fact that she has launched an independent investigation … I think is a good start.”
The group will keep tabs on the town’s response, she said.
The controversy comes just over a week after protesters held a Black Lives Matter rally outside Niskayuna Town Hall, one of countless protests both locally and nationally against racism. The protests around the country came in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.