UTICA — The list of people who signed as witnesses on petitions in support of increasing the term limits of some of Utica’s elected officials reads a bit like a directory for Utica City Hall.
Along with several city residents, there’s Andy Brindisi, Gene Allen and Derek Crossman, all of whom work for the city’s Urban Renewal Agency.
City Planner Chris Lawrence and Ashley Bizzari, an executive assistant to Mayor Robert Palmieri, also witnessed some, along with city Comptroller William Morehouse, Councilman Dave Testa, D-2, and former council president Frank Meola. Palmieri's wife, Susan, also signed as a witness to some of the signatures.
The proposed law would amend the city’s charter and allow the mayor, comptroller and council president to run for three consecutive four-year terms and council members to run for six consecutive two-year terms before stepping aside. The current charter states that the mayor, council president and city comptroller can serve for two consecutive terms after which they are ineligible to run again. Council members can be elected to four consecutive terms, but then are ineligible to run for their current seat.
Does the fact that city employees, elected officials and those associated with Palmieri’s administration were involved in collecting signatures give the public a bad perception of the push to increase term limits?
Palmieri doesn't think so.
"I think at any point that you can get people that have worked under someone that are looking at the direction where the city was and where it's coming from, I guess I'm very grateful that they not only have the confidence in me and Bill Morehouse but they also like the direction of where their city's going because you're talking about young people who have a vested interest in the progress and the future of the city," said Palmieri, who also signed one of the petitions.
Things look different to Jim Zecca, a Republican who is seeking one of three at-large council seats this November and who was termed out as a councilman at the end of 2013.
“It looks like the family-and-friends plan is back in full force and self-serving politicians are at it again,” Zecca said. "I think the term limit law that's in place right now is working well."
Several city employees and elected officials who did witness signatures told the Observer-Dispatch they gathered signatures on weekends and evenings and not on city time. While the petitions indicate the day they were collected, the time is not noted.
"I can tell you everybody I know that’s at the city is doing the same thing — evenings or weekends and staying as far away from City Hall as possible with these things," Allen said. "Anybody that’s doing it are people that feel confident about the administration and the direction we're headed and that we'd like to see it continue."
Lawrence said gathering petitions isn't "even something that you do" on lunch breaks.
"I do understand the perception could look undesirable but I do this because I feel very strongly about the mayor and I think he's doing a pretty good job," he said. "I'm happy with what we've been able to accomplish and I'd like to see that momentum keep on. So if there's anything I can do, I try to help out in any way I can."
Morehouse, meanwhile, said that he carried petitions because he wants continuity for the city.
"I see myself here as two years where Rob is gone and I'm like, 'Oh, that’s going to stink,'" he said. "We might have the hospital starting downtown and all of a sudden I've got a new mayor to work with. I'm sure it will work out fine, but I know this one works out fine, but I'd rather have what I know in my hand than potentially something that might not work out so well."
Palmieri said he has "never asked" city employees to go out for petitions and that his administration is the "farthest thing from behind it." He also said employees are free to do what they please with their free time.
"At the end of the day, we're talking about people that are signing these petitions," he said. "I don't think it makes a difference who's out there because when they come in front of them, they can say, 'No, I don't want to sign it' or 'I would love to sign it.'"
Phil Klinkner, professor of government at Hamilton College, said that city employees don't "give up all of (their) political rights" and do have the right to carry petitions. But problems could arise if the employees are collecting signatures on city time or if their boss is making them do it.
"If they were somehow coerced to do it, if they're doing this on city time, then it’s a problem because obviously they can't engage in political work when they're supposed to be doing their real job and if their boss is telling them to engage in political work … then that’s a problem, too," Klinkner said. "But as far as I know, there's no suggestions of that."
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