UTICA — Robert Palmieri serves as the city of Utica’s mayor and its public safety commissioner.

But in light of the situation involving Utica fire Chief Russell Brooks being placed on leave, some have questioned if Palmieri can adequately handle both positions.

The public safety commissioner oversees the police and fire departments and interacts with each department’s leadership. Palmieri took on the duties of public safety commissioner when he took office as mayor in 2012 and is not taking extra salary for doing both roles. He said in 2013 that the city didn't have the resources to hire a separate public safety commissioner.

Palmieri previously served as deputy public safety commissioner, Weed and Seed coordinator and as the chairman of the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee. He said he has an institutional knowledge with the police and fire departments from his time in those positions and that the chiefs should be able to run their respective bureaus. 

“I have to think that, because of my multiple years being involved, there’s not too many mayors that I know of or council members that were intimately on the streets as much as I was ...,” Palmieri said. “I have a lot of people on the streets that reach out to me. I'll get leads that, unfortunately, at times they won't go to the police department. They feel more comfortable talking to me."

But Councilman Joe Marino, D-4, said that Palmieri's jobs were political appointments and that they "don't hold any water in terms of training and education." He also said that Palmieri is "undoubtedly unqualified to handle that position."

"It just happened to have been that because of the Brooks situation along with many others by the way — the issue with tampering with crime scenes a couple years ago and things like that — it's unquestionable that he’s not qualified to handle that position," said Marino.

Past problems

Marino is referring to an incident in 2013 where Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara, in a letter to Palmieri, expressed concerns that perhaps the Utica mayor’s proactive passions were carrying him too far when it comes to public safety. The July 23 letter was prompted by Palmieri’s nearly 20-minute presence within a secured crime scene at Addison Miller Park, where an armed teenager was shot by a Utica police officer that month. 

In Palmieri’s reply at that time, he disagreed with some of McNamara’s positions but acknowledged that the issues have been resolved. He also wrote that the official vehicle he received after taking over as mayor in 2012 was equipped with emergency lights — something Palmieri said he believed was appropriate and similar to what previous mayors’ vehicles have had — but that the lights were disconnected.

“I still go to crime scenes. I still go to fires. I still go when there’s a major incident,” Palmieri said in April. “I guess sometimes you can’t change who I am. I’m in love with my city. I want the people to understand I will do everything in my power to help them. Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t.”

In a June interview with radio station WIBX, McNamara said, in his opinion, it is "better when they have a public safety commissioner" because he can help relations between the district attorney's office and the police.

Politics at play?

Former Mayor David Roefaro, who appointed Daniel LaBella as public safety commissioner during his time in office, said that the position of mayor and public safety commissioner should be two separate jobs. LaBella, however, saw his share of controversy, including his ill-fated appointment as police chief and his support of the James Street public safety center, according to the O-D's archives.

“Listen, if you don’t have a public safety commissioner, they turn public safety into politics and that’s a big liability for the city and you’re seeing it now with the Chief Brooks thing,” Roefaro said. "The best public safety commissioners are the ones that have been either police officers, firefighters, people who have worked the beat and dealt with emergencies. Not mayors. Not us that want to flash our sirens and drive a black car. That’s not our role. Our role is something else.”

Palmieri, however, said that’s not the case.

“There’s no room for politics,” he said. “I don’t let politics, personalities or past ventures play into any of the decision making that we make.”

Utica Police Chief Mark Williams, who also worked under LaBella, said he didn't notice much of a difference between the two commissioners and that he hasn't had any problems with Palmieri serving as public safety commissioner. He also said he would like to think that politics don't come into play. 

"Unless there's something behind the scenes I'm not aware of; I'm not aware of any," Williams said of politics.

Officials with the fire department were not immediately available to comment.

Rome Mayor Jacqueline Izzo said that while Rome mayors in the past have held both positions, she decided to go with a full-time commissioner after determining doing both jobs was too much to handle. 

"I don’t know if it becomes too political," she said when asked about a mayor holding both positions. "I think it's all what your management style is, to be honest."

Is one better than two?

There is nothing stopping a mayor from serving in both positions, said Charlie Brown, an assistant corporation counsel with the city. 

"In the absence of a public safety commissioner, somebody has to perform the duties," Brown said. "It either goes up the ladder to the mayor or down the ladder to the police chief. That's just the way it is."

But Councilman Bill Phillips, D-5, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, said it makes more sense to have each position filled by a separate person. 

"I think the mayor has enough to do with running the city and not worry about running the police department, too," he said. "I think if we had a commissioner, it would be his voice and I think the optics would look a hell of a lot better than having a mayor run the police force. So, I support the concept of a commissioner."

Palmieri, though, said that he thinks things have worked well so far.

"I think sometimes a public safety commissioner is very much needed and it's very difficult to have that capacity to a dual role," he said. "But I think in my situation, I think I have a very firm grasp on a lot of the involvement within the community. I guess I put a lot of faith into my chiefs. I think if it was maybe a little bit different then you bring a public safety commissioner in to be the bad guy to your departments or to make some changes because you're fearful of making those changes." 

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