Geneva Believer sent interview requests to all 18 Republican and Democratic candidates for City Council and Mayor. Six candidates agreed to participate in email interviews. Candidates were asked the same eleven questions, plus one question specific to the candidate, along with one follow-up question (if needed). All responses are being published in full, unedited and without any additional editorial commentary.
12 Questions With Ward 5 Democratic Candidate Laura Salamendra
1. The City of Geneva Comprehensive Plan took about a year and a half, cost $100,000, and involved the participation of hundreds of residents through bi-lingual forums and surveys. The result was a detailed set of recommendations for the city, none of which include any commercial or residential development in Lakefront Park. The Plan also calls Lakefront Park one of the city’s two most valued public spaces, according to residents.The Plan further recommends re-zoning Lakefront Park, which would prevent all attempts at future development.
Do you support the Comprehensive Plan’s suggestion to permanently protect Lakefront Park from development? If not,why? And if so, what will you do to help make it happen?
I do support the Comprehensive Plan’s suggestion to permanently protect Lakefront Park from development. Seneca Lake is for all of us. In order to ensure it is permanently protected, Council could pursue a variety of avenues: Lakefront Park could be rezoned, it could be placed in a land trust, or the City could pass a law guaranteeing that Lakefront Park cannot be sold or developed. I would work with my fellow City Councilors and the City Manager to select the option that most efficiently and effectively protects and expands access to the lakefront.
2. In 2016, Councilor Ken Camera suggested relocating the Finger Lakes Railway rail yard out of the city limits, and using the property both for new housing and create easy access for Ward 6 residents to the lakefront. Negotiations have begun with Finger Lakes Railway to move the rail yard, but the project could use an additional push from Council.
Do you support Camera’s plan for the railway, and if so, what will you do to help make it happen?
I support moving the rail yard out of city limits and creating easy access for Ward 6 residents to the lakefront. I want to be very clear, though, that I will only support a plan for developing the former rail yards that actually serves the people of Wards 5 and 6; the removal of the rail yard cannot become an excuse for development schemes that don’t support the community already living there.
3. Finger Lakes Railway is one of eight corporate PILOT programs currently in effect in the city. The Railway paid $4,000 in total taxes in 2019, while the fully assessed amount they would have paid without the PILOT is over $55,000. It’s unclear how many jobs or other tax revenue the Railway provides to the city in exchange for a tax discount of over 90%. In total, eight corporations, with total revenues in the millions and billions of dollars, received a total of over $3 million in tax discounts in 2019.
Do you support a closer examination, or even an overhaul, in the way the city gives out PILOTs to million- and billion-dollar corporations while homeowners get no tax discounts?
We absolutely need a top to bottom overhaul of how the city handles development. The false idea that by appealing to rich people and corporations, some crumbs will trickle down to the people of Geneva, is exactly what got us into a situation where we have major corporations not paying their fair share while working class people struggle to pay our bills.
For many years now tax stimulus programs, not just here in Geneva, but all around the country, have driven local government. Essentially, cities and towns compete for state and corporate money by promising tax breaks and other incentives. We should do an audit of the last twenty years of tax breaks and development contracts to try to understand how a situation like the one you describe can occur, where corporations benefit from massive tax giveaways in a time when working families are struggling. To make this happen, we must make information about past and current deals open to the public.
Furthermore, we heard in the “Let’s Talk Economic Opportunity” focus groups, report, and follow-up discussions that people are frustrated that corporations like the Koch-owned Guardian Glass are not hiring enough Geneva residents nor are they helping to relieve the impediments to employment—such as inadequate public transportation, expensive rents, or limited childcare—that Genevans face. We offer these companies a tax break without ever asking for anything in return. In exchange for massive tax breaks, why not insist that companies hire Geneva residents, support the expansion of public transportation, or help address our childcare crisis?
4. The relationship between the Police and Community has been an issue in Geneva for generations. The Community Compact, which received $15,000 in taxpayer funding in 2019, has not organized any public events in 2019, and according to their meeting minutes, are having difficulties generating public support and participation. One possible reason for the flagging public support is that the Compact only addresses the relationship between the police and community, and does not the address the community’s calls for accountability for police who engage in misconduct.
Do you support an independent civilian review board, with investigative powers and the authority to discipline officers guilty of misconduct, effectively giving the community oversight of the police?
Yes! Everyone knows that I have been speaking up for police accountability for years. The Community Compact began at a tragic moment for this community and had a lot of good will behind it. Lots of good people poured their hearts and souls into the Compact only to have their work twisted, denied, shelved, and ignored by the City. At the moment, “Compact” is the name for a dead process that is largely in the hands of the police and the City. Sage Gerling and Mike Passalaqua control whether the Compact goes anywhere.
On Council I’ll demand to know why the process of building police accountability stopped meaningfully engaging the community, especially those people most impacted by over-policing, police misconduct, and racist, sexist policing. How did we get so far from the initial goal, which was NOT to address “police-community” relations by “educating” the public about compliance, but to create an effective civilian oversight of the police, to make sure such tragedies and abuse and brutality on the part of the police no longer go unaddressed or in the case of Montesanto, addressed to little and too late.
5. Both the Geneva City Manager and City Council, by virtue of the City Charter, have the authority to conduct investigations, with subpoena power, into the conduct of all city officers, departments, boards, commissions and agencies.
Do you support an investigation into the Geneva Foundry disaster to determine why the city chose to keep the widespread contamination a secret for more than twenty years, what went wrong and how it could be prevented in the future?
Yes, I support an investigation of the way the City mishandled the foundry disaster, and kept crucial health information from the public. One of residents’ demands once the foundry story finally broke was an explanation of how this happened and assurances that it would never happen again. This is precisely how a community loses trust in their City government; this is what happens when politicians make decisions for us rather than with us. The city councilors heard loud and clear that the people wanted an investigation, but they chose to protect themselves instead. They shamed residents for coming out to ask Council to make life livable while they lived in poison, rather than supporting those residents who stood up and asked for justice, or at the very least for an explanation of how long the City knew about the contamination and why they covered it up.
6. Rental costs are sky-high in the City, another result of an extremely high tax rate. In addition, there are numerous unscrupulous and irresponsible landlords in the city, with some low-income residents living in unsafe and illegal conditions. The Geneva Human Rights Commission has been massively defunded in the last decade, making it even harder for tenants who are being treated unfairly to report their problems and find justice. There are also limited resources available for code enforcement. There are slumlords who are longtime Geneva natives, well-known in the community, who seem to avoid any scrutiny for their lack of care and concern for their tenants.
Do you think the city needs to do more to hold all slumlords accountable, and do you have any suggestions of what could be done differently?
New York State has passed a new Statewide Housing Security and Tenant Protection Act. My first step as a City Councilor would be to ensure that the new law, which grants additional protections for renters, is followed. This means investigating which landlords are illegally refusing to rent to people who qualify for Section Eight housing, receive social services, or are undocumented. This also means making sure that our police department is trained in the new legislation. Currently, the GPD too often oversteps their requirements under the law by siding with landlords and bullying tenants who have a legitimate claim. This has happened to me: when my own landlord refused to complete necessary repairs, I refused to pay rent. When he attempted to illegally evict me, the police acted on the landlord’s word telling me to vacate the premises with no legal eviction order, signed by a judge.
While actually following and enforcing state law will be a step in the right direction, Geneva also desperately needs additional quality, affordable low-income housing. Affordable housing is one of the central elements of my campaign platforms, and I will make it my mission as a city councilor to ensure that any new development in Geneva puts the housing needs of working class Genevans first. All over the country cities are addressing the housing crisis through city ordinances, like rent caps; through progressive alternative development plans; and by forcing developers to create plans for mixed-income housing. When new housing isn’t affordable, it sends the message that we care more about tourists than our own residents. The very residents who have made this city a place worth visiting!
7. In recent years, calls for cost-benefit analysis of our Police and Fire Departments have been made, but not heard. Cities across New York State of similar size to Geneva have a smaller number of police and firefighters on the payroll. No such study has been done in recent memory.
Do you support a cost-benefit study of our police and fire budgets to ensure taxpayers aren’t overpaying for public safety?
As a city councilor my approach to fire and police budgets are fundamentally different. The fire department is a mostly-volunteer organization that responds to emergencies. I’ve been talking to firefighters about their resource needs and the kind of support from city government they require, but it is clear that when a department is hosting chicken barbeques and bingo nights to raise enough money to be able to respond to peoples’ needs, it needs the support of City Council. Of course, it is important to make sure that government funds are well-spent and I’m not opposed to a budget study; however, the most important research we must do is hear from our firefighters about what they need to do their jobs well.
One trick the GPD pulls over and over is to attach itself to our popular and underfunded fire department in order to claim that they are also underfunded. But they have more officers, who receive more pay than other cities our size. And they just received an additional $66,00 for body cameras, which will cost an additional $200,000 over 5 years. So claims that our police department is underfunded are simply unfounded. Most of the GPD officers do not live in Geneva, yet they benefit from excessively high salaries paid by city residents who have no oversight over police conduct or budget priorities. The GPD costs Geneva residents even more than the numbers on the budget line: their documented violence opens the city up to expensive lawsuits and leaves residents afraid of an oversized police department with no community oversight. I fully support an audit of the GPD’s budget and believe we must also have a complete and transparent account of how much of our money has been spent to settle lawsuits brought by Genevans subjected to police misconduct.
8. Some City Councilors, as well as some 2019 council candidates, have supported the hiring of an Economic Development director for the city.
Do you support creating a new paid city position for an economic development director?
If YES, please explain your reasons, your vision of ‘economic development,’ and what shortcomings you see in the city’s current economic development efforts.
If NO, please explain your reasons, your vision of ‘economic development’ and why you think hiring for a new position is not a good idea.
The city doesn’t need more high paid administrators fighting to maintain the status quo. The people of Geneva have lots of experience to share and all of the resources to fight for a just economic future. We should be supporting businesses that support the community they serve. In Geneva, we must not focus on how we can serve business; business should work for the people. People in Finger Lakes restaurants have been working their way up from washing dishes to running dining rooms and now the city wants to bring in rich restaurateurs who don’t live here and were not a part of building our thriving food and beverage industry.
Economic development should be for all of us. The Tools for Social Change Economic Opportunity Study outlined very clearly the factors that keep Genevans in poverty: these include a lack of public transportation, childcare, and affordable housing, among other factors. Rather than hiring an economic development director to serve already-wealthy entrepreneurs, we should focus on the variety of factors, in addition to employment opportunities, that keep our neighbors from accessing well-paying jobs with dignity.
9. Many of the above questions address the issue of high taxes. Do you support any other ideas for easing the tax burden on the working class who bear the brunt of our tax problem?
Too often when we discuss taxes in Geneva, we look to the people who have the least to contribute, rather than those who have the most. We know that there are eight corporate PILOT programs in Geneva, why are we not asking these companies to pay their fare share? We know that the City pays significant legal fees in cases of police misconduct and in the case of the Geneva foundry. Why are we not concerned that money for these cover-up legal battles come out of our taxes? Geneva is home to multiple nonprofits; the City Council must develop a plan to ensure that no more properties are taken off the tax rolls. For example, HWS is currently renting several spaces in downtown Geneva; this should be the norm and not an exception to the rule. Finally, I believe that careful scrutiny of the GPD budget will reveal significant overspending and even a small reduction in their enormous budget would go a long way to funding important community programs like community gardens, Food Justice, the Human Rights Commission, and other programs that meaningfully improve the quality of life for all Genevans and not just corporations.
10. One issue that is spotlighted by Geneva Believer is conflicts of interest in city government. In a city the size of Geneva, it can be difficult to separate personal or professional relationships from city business.
If elected, how would you deal with your own conflicts of interest? If cutting part of the city budget would impact your friends or your professional relationships, how would you address such an issue?
I stand in solidarity with working class and oppressed people 24 hours a day. Conflicts of interest are an issue for City Councilors who want to make themselves richer or more influential by joining Council. This is not who I am. I am running for City Council because I want to serve the interests of the people. Anyone who knows me, knows that personal and professional relationships are very important to me, but they are not more important than justice.
11. Your experience as an activist is well-known in the community. Much of your work has involved civil disobedience, loud public protest and strident positions on the issues.
How would you answer critics who say that your style of activism will be a problem if you are elected to city council, and who say that you won’t be able to collaborate, cooperate, and compromise with councilors with whom you strongly disagree in a civil manner?
I have dedicated my adult life to organizing for justice in my community. I take my activism seriously, because I know that the only way to build a better life for working class people in Geneva is to fight for it together. But this is not simply about organizing protests and rallies. The vast majority of my organizing time is spent in meetings, talking to individuals and families about their struggles, researching the most just solutions to a problem, and building the kind of community power that will actually bring real change.
Anyone who has been in a planning meeting with me or sat in my kitchen talking about their struggles to access childcare, get out of an abusive relationship, or find quality housing, knows that I am collaborative, a good listener, and a tireless problem-solver. I am excited to bring these skills to City Council. At the same time, I commit to fighting for my ward. If this means that I have to get loud or call out corruption to serve the people, I will. I value the process of hearing peoples’ stories and brainstorming the best solutions to a given problem, but I will not compromise on anything that would negatively impact that lives of my neighbors. I am never going to be satisfied with a solution that serves only some of us.
12. Would you like to provide a final statement about any issues specific to your ward and/or your campaign?
All power to the people