Niskayuna

Niskayuna councilman disagrees with town’s handling of Sebesta case

Sebesta retired from town employment after he was suspended over allegations he wore blackface with a Halloween costume in 2014
Inset: John Della Ratta
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Inset: John Della Ratta

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

NISKAYUNA — Town Councilman John Della Ratta disagrees with the way the town has handled the complaint against former town Comptroller Paul C. Sebesta.

Sebesta on Thursday retired from town employment after he was suspended on Tuesday over allegations he wore blackface with a Halloween costume in 2014.

Members of a group calling itself “Progressive Schenectady” earlier this week expressed their concerns about the photo — some screenshots of a deleted social media photo had survived — to Town Board members.

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The blackface allegations were discussed during a Town Board executive session on Wednesday. Board members spoke against the use of blackface in any context, with one member describing facial coloring as “an ignorant and degrading practice” and another saying the town must have a “zero tolerance for racism.”

The town had been planning an investigation into the Sebesta matter, conducted by outside legal counsel. Supervisor Yasmine Syed said Friday she has reached out to town attorney Robert Briggs for the next steps.

“Where do we go from here, that’s sort of the question,” Syed said. “Do we proceed with an investigation or does it stop here? That’s something he’s looking into.”

Della Ratta, in a statement issued Thursday night, said he did not agree with the way the town has handled the complaint against Sebesta.

“It appears some board members are acting with malice, deliberately destroying a person’s career and reputation over an inappropriate picture that was removed approximately two years ago,” Della Ratta said. “Is the board saying Paul Sebesta is a racist bigot? One incident does not a bigot make.

“What other evidence  is there of racism?” Della Ratta asked. “I believe he made an error in judgment and deserves an opportunity to apologize and retire with dignity.  He has served our town admirably for over 25 years.”

Della Ratta also said he believes board members are over-reacting and “appear to be only serving themselves” and not the town. He said town officials knew about the blackface photo two years ago.

“My wife Michelle viewed this photo with another town employee at Town Hall approximately two years ago,” Della Ratta also said. “If our supervisor wasn’t aware of this, she should have been. Why was it not addressed then?

“I now look forward to applying the ‘Sebesta standard’ to all our appointed employees,” Della Ratta said.

Syed said she was not aware of any photo circulating two years ago.

 

“There was a rumor of a photo,” she said. “In Mr. Sebesta’s retirement even he acknowledges the photo was removed years ago. So looking at his Facebook page, none existed. We have only received the proof that it existed just on Monday.”

Syed also said when she took over as supervisor in 2018, she heard many rumors, innuendo and stories. “I just can’t operate on rumors and innuendo,” she said. “I have to act on fact.”

Sebesta submitted a letter to the board on Thursday, announcing his intentions to retire. Sebesta said he wore the costume on Halloween 2014 and later removed a photo from his social media account. “Rather than continue to cause harm to the community I love, I have decided to step aside,” Sebesta wrote in the letter.

Contact staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-641-8400 or at [email protected]

 

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