In recent months, the city’s Ethics Board has been thrust into the spotlight after a series of complaints (many, if not most, from anonymous sources) against Ward 5 Councilor Laura Salamendra.
Salamendra, a longtime activist and vocal critic of the Geneva Police Department who was elected in November 2019, has been found in violation of the City’s Code of Ethics on three occasions over the past 90 days.
Last year, the chair of the City of Geneva’s Ethics Board declared his support for the Geneva Police Department on Facebook while referring to police reform advocates such as Salamendra as “less-than-wholesome individuals” who planned on “gutting” the Geneva Police Department. James Petropoulos, who has chaired the Ethics Committee since 2019, made the confrontational comments in an unprompted, rambling message on his personal Facebook page in June.
And in a statement to City Council that was read during public comment at the October 2020 Monthly Council meeting, another member of the Ethics Board, Sharon Dutcher, accused Salamendra of harboring a “true, deep-rooted hatred of police.”
Is the 5-member Ethics Board able to objectively and fairly review complaints against Salamendra?
What Is the Ethics Board?
The City of Geneva uses a Code of Ethics to guide the conduct of city employees, as well as all elected or appointed city officials.
According to the city’s website:
In 2008, the City of Geneva revamped its Code of Ethics to provide for specific expectation of public officials in the execution of their responsibilities to our constituents. City Council holds the Code of Ethics in high regard, and works to ensure that all program, policies, and activities of the City are conducted in accordance with the Code.
The Code of Ethics includes 17 Tenets that all city employees and elected or appointed officials must follow.
Members of the public can report ethics violations by city employees and elected or appointed officials by submitting a complaint to the Ethics Board.
City Council appoints a 5-member (with 1 alternate) Ethics Board. Each member of the Board must be a City resident (among other requirements), and serves a 2-4-year term.
When a member of the public fills out the form on the city’s website and files an ethics complaint, the complaint first goes to the Chair of the Ethics Committee. Upon receiving the complaint, the Chair then forwards the complaint to the City Clerk and the other members of the Ethics Board to be reviewed.
Currently, James Petropoulos is the Chair of the Ethics Committee.
On June 27th, 2020, Board of Ethics Chair James Petropoulos made the following public post on his personal Facebook page:
“In Geneva, certain known agitators and less-than-wholesome individuals are essentially calling for a gutting of the GPD.”
Although Petropoulos doesn’t mention Salamendra by name, most reasonable people who follow local politics and community policing discussions would know that Salamendra is one of a very small handful of “certain known agitators” who were vocally critical of the GPD during the months preceding Petropoulos’ post.
Obviously, the First Amendment guarantees that everyone, including Petropoulos, has the right to publicly state their political or social beliefs and opinions.
However, considering that Petropoulos is the chair of a City Board that reviews alleged ethics violations by Geneva City Councilors, his not-so-thinly-veiled public attack on Councilor Salamendra, calling her “less-than-wholesome,” could certainly give the appearance that Petropoulos is unable to objectively consider ethics complaints against the councilor.
“A True, Deep-Rooted Hatred For The Police”
During the public comment portion of the October 7th, 2020 City Council monthly meeting, city resident Sharon Dutcher, who also currently serves on the Ethics Board, made the following comments. Dutcher complained about a “councilwoman’s outburst” during the previous day’s special meeting to discuss the PAB:
“After seeing a councilwoman’s outburst last night during the special meeting, I was honestly shocked at what I saw. The reaction to the possibility of allowing a retired law enforcement officer, not GPD, and required training that PAB members would need to go through with the Citizen’s Police Academy, showed me that there is a true, deep-rooted hatred for the police.”
Again, the First Amendment guarantees everyone the right to publicly state their political or social beliefs and opinions.
Still, once again, a sitting member of the Ethics Board felt strongly compelled to publicly attack Councilor Salamendra for her views, rather than simply express disagreement. It’s certainly arguable that, like Petropoulos, Dutcher’s publicly-expressed personal bias precludes her from having an objective opinion when considering ethics complaints against Salamendra.
If Nobody Complains, It Didn’t Happen
It’s important to note that the Ethics Board only investigates submitted complaints. This means that a city employee or officer might violate the Code, but if there are no complaints about that violation, there will be no review by the Ethics Board.
For anyone who has watched a City Council meeting in the last year, it would appear that every single councilor has violated Tenet 5 at least once (but probably repeatedly), and that every single council meeting includes multiple ethics violations.
TENET 5: CONDUCT OF PUBLIC MEETINGS
Public Officials shall prepare themselves for public issues, listen courteously and attentively to all public discussions before the body, and focus on the business at hand. They shall refrain from interrupting speakers, making personal comments not germane to the business of the body, or otherwise interfering with the orderly conduct of meetings.
- “Public Officials shall prepare themselves for public issues” – If the mayor or a councilor hasn’t reviewed the agenda and prepared themselves to discuss the details of each agenda item, it’s an ethics violation.
- “(Public officials shall) listen courteously and attentively to all public discussions before the body” – If the mayor or a councilor becomes distracted at any point during a discussion, or makes faces or gestures indicating that they are not listening “courteously and attentively,” it’s an ethics violation.
- “(Public officials shall) focus on the business at hand” – If the mayor or a councilor speaks about subjects unrelated to the agenda item being discussed, it’s an ethics violation.
- “(Public officials shall) refrain from interrupting speakers” – If the mayor or a councilor speaks while someone else is speaking, it’s an ethics violation.
- “(Public officials shall refrain from) making personal comments not germane to the business of the body” – If If the mayor or a councilor makes a personal comment, about anyone on earth, that is not relevant to what’s being discussed, it’s an ethics violation.
If members of the public took the time to review every minute of every council meeting, the Ethics Board would be swamped with dozens, if not hundreds, of ethics complaints against every councilor.
But that’s not happening, and one councilor seems to be receiving the bulk of ethics complaints over the last year.
Is it possible that Salamendra is being targeted for her political views on policing in Geneva, and the Ethics Board is being used to push a public narrative of the councilor as an out-of-control lawbreaker?
Keep in mind, Petropoulos and Dutcher each felt compelled to give unsolicited public statements in which they apparently targeted Salamendra, and only Salamendra, with personal attacks.
An upcoming article will review the Ethics Board findings against Salamendra to see whether those findings have a basis in fact, and if the findings are being exaggerated and exploited to smear and discredit Salamendra in the eyes of the public.