Sick time report stirs Albany debate
Published on 11/12/2010 by the Times Union written by by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist
ALBANY -- A week after an outside investigator recommended the city's gang-prevention specialist be placed on probation for abusing sick time, several city lawmakers want to eliminate his job entirely.
Some council members have raised the subject of Ron "Cook" Barrett's future with the city as they continue to struggle with Mayor Jerry Jennings' proposed 2011 budget, which contains deep cuts and about 34 layoffs to close a $23 million gap.
District Attorney David Soares, however, urged lawmakers not to act rashly out of emotion.
Earlier this month, an attorney hired by the city after the Times Union revealed apparent irregularities in Barrett's time sheets reported back that he had improperly charged 307 hours of sick time to the city since January 2008.
The punishment recommended by the attorney, former assistant corporation counsel Stephen J. Rehfuss, was that Barrett be placed on probation and be required to forfeit vacation and personal time to repay the city.
"I think it sets a poor example at a time when we're laying off people," Councilman Ron Bailey said. "And here's a person who did what he wanted to do and didn't follow the rules and regulations of the city, and we're going to let people go who do."
Bailey was among the council members who began asking larger questions about the effectiveness of the city's gang-prevention programs after the newspaper reported that Barrett appeared to have charged the city for sick time while speaking for pay at out-of-town gang-prevention events.
"My thing is, there's no statistics, they're not showing us anything," he said. "And if that gang prevention was working, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have the amount of kids we have being arrested on racketeering charges by the federal government."
The report concluded, however, that Barrett didn't intentionally try to defraud the city but merely didn't understand the policy regarding sick leave -- in part because he never read the employee manual he was given.
Councilman Michael O'Brien, however, is among those who question that conclusion.
"It found misconduct and then it somehow said it was excusable for ignorance," said O'Brien, who raised the prospect of eliminating the job a budget meeting Wednesday.
"I'm not convinced what good impact the position has had," O'Brien said, noting that the Department of Youth and Workforce Services has been unable to provide statistics on Barrett's activities.
Soares, however, said that gang prevention can't easily be measured statistically and that the city can ill-afford to jeopardize gains it has made in combatting youth violence.
"I don't know that the city has the luxury of these choices right now," said Soares, adding that the complaints with the current job could be addressed with better oversight. "Now is not the time to be making poor decisions that are based on emotion ... What he provides is a very important service."
Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti suggested the job may need to be redefined to focus more on the city's new efforts to battle gun violence, one of the recommendations of the city's Gun Violence Task Force.
Barrett currently serves on the team charged with implementing those recommendations.
Conti said one of Rehfuss' most glaring findings was that it appears there was little certainty as to which department -- Youth and Workforce Services or the police department -- was supposed to be monitoring Barrett's activities.
"I think one thing that came out of that report was lack of clear supervision," he said, adding that he thought the report was "a bit weak" in the example it set for employee misconduct.
One question that remains unanswered is whether the council even has the power to eliminate the job. The city charter prevents lawmakers from altering salaries, but Conti said an argument could be made that cutting a job is not the same thing.
"I'd like to see us take a stand. I'd like to see them take us to court," said Councilman Dominick Calsolaro.
Calsolaro said the future of the job should depend largely on what kinds of gang-prevention programming the city is actually offering. He said he was upset to learn, after the allegations against Barrett, that some of the programs advertised had ceased several years ago.
"If we don't have programming, then we don't need a coordinator," he said.
Calsolaro declined to say whether he believed Barrett should keep his job, but added: "Personally, I don't know if I could have gotten away with that in my job. I doubt it."
Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org