Marchionda responds; offers to work with PBA, but denounces Mitchell

Gwen Chamberlain

The next step in repairing the strained relationships between Penn Yan Mayor Douglas Marchionda Jr. and the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) is up to the rank and file officers.

Tuesday, Jan. 22, Marchionda called a special village board meeting to order at 5:30 p.m. and over the next 30 minutes or so, he read a five page letter to the PBA members, declined opportunities for comments from the public present and from Police Chief Gene Mitchell. But he did offer the PBA an opportunity to respond, and the conclusion of his letter contained an offer to work with the PBA and village board to repair the damaged relationships.

“It is unfortunate that the relationship has deteriorated to the degree it has. We are willing to work together with you for betterment of the community to hopefully re-establish a reasonable working relationship to put this behind us,” he said.

PBA President Michael Donovan, who had signed the letter sent by the PBA on Jan. 15, said the PBA would reserve comment until the membership had a chance to review Marchionda’s letter. A union representative accompanied the PBA members.

Read the PBA's letter here.

Marchionda’s letter was in response to the PBA’s demand that he explain the actions he took on Dec. 24 when he reportedly received complaints about the actions of Police Officer Michael Rago.

Read the Mayor's letter here.

Marchionda says he originally planned to investigate complaints he received Dec. 24 and report back to the police department, Lloyd’s Limited owner Robert Champlin and others who complained that night.

“I had hoped that after gaining all the facts, we could then work out an orderly plan of action to insure that we acted legally and appropriately going forward. However, the unanimous decision of the PBA to inflame the situation with public accusations rampant with half-truths and inaccurate information, combined with questioning the legality of my actions and authority have raised the profile of this unfortunate incident to an unnecessary level,” read Marchionda.

He also said he wants to address the issue completely and to make sure “any and all corrections necessary within my authority to insure that we don’t repeat the same error again in the future.”

Near the end of his letter, he explains a comment he made about eliminating the police department was “made in error out of frustration with an insubordinate police chief in a private conversation. It is not my intent to eliminate the Police Department.”

But he stops short of making peace with Mitchell, stating, “The village of Penn Yan assumes no responsibility for the actions of and any subsequent liabilities incurred as a result of the actions of Chief Mitchell the night of December 24, 2007, as it is our position that he was acting outside his authority as Police Chief of the Village of Penn Yan.”

Before he began reading his letter, the trustees present — Michael Christensen, Nancy Taylor, Willie Allison, Robert Church and Michael D’Abbracci unanimously approved a motion offered by Christensen and seconded by Allison, to support the mayor’s position. Trustee Robert Hoban was absent.

There was no outward reaction from the group of 30 people who gathered in the meeting room as Marchionda read the letter, but one member of the public — Robert Hawley — attempted to ask Marchionda a pointed question about the Dec. 24 incident at Lloyd’s Limited.

Marchionda said allowing public comment during a meeting is at the discretion of the mayor or the board. 

When Mitchell asked to speak, Marchionda again said no.

“The mayor has denied me the opportunity to address the board in executive session or in public session that last two meetings,” said Mitchell, who says he and the members of the police department will continue to do their jobs professionally despite the conflict.

When contacted the next day, Mitchell said the report has a major flaw.

“It ignores the official police report generated by Officer Rago at 9:34 p.m. Dec. 24. In it he (Rago) quotes Mr. Champlin as saying he ‘thought’ he could stay open until 9 p.m. Then went on to say that he would get the patrons out and would only have employees staying as he was planning on having an employee party.”

Mitchell also says that report documents that he (Mitchell) had a conversation with Champlin a year ago after it was reported to Mitchell that patrons were inside Lloyd’s Limited, consuming alcoholic beverages up until 10 p.m. on Dec. 24, 2006. Mitchell says Champlin also claimed to be holding a private party at the time.

“I checked with the State Liquor Authority, then advised him that he could not do that if alcoholic beverages were being consumed,” he says.

Mitchell adds, “These two facts tend to cast doubt on most of the relevant issues that the mayor read. No one ever threatened to arrest Champlin or deny him his Constitutional rights. The mayor chose to ignore this issue for almost a month. When faced with addressing it, the best spin he could come up with was Champlin’s right to stay open all night and serve food and non-alcoholic beverages. It was never about that.”

In response to the mayor’s reasons for taking action, Mitchell says:

“ Nowhere in the police report does Officer Rago state that he ‘ordered everyone out of Lloyd’s. It clearly states that he advised Champlin he could not dispense alcoholic beverages after 8 p.m. He then told Champlin that the situation would be documented and the chief would decide on whether a referral would be completed if he did not comply.”

Mitchell also says “Rago’s report clearly states the mayor told him to ignore the chief’s directive about selling alcoholic beverages after 8 p.m. and to leave Lloyd’s alone.”

And he says when he (Mitchell) questioned Rago about the conversation with the mayor, Rago said he was polite to Marchionda and wished him a Merry Christmas at the conclusion of the conversation. “Officer Rago has no personnel complaints filed against him in his four years at the Police Department. I find it unbelievable that he would be so rude to the mayor that he would be subject to dismissal,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell says he made no errors in his own conversation that night with Champlin, as the mayor asserts. “Any conversation I had with him was regarding dispensing alcoholic beverages after 8 p.m., whether open or closed to the public. He never indicated a problem with people finishing their dinner or the fact he was going to have an employee party with no alcoholic beverages being consumed on premises. That is why I told him if he wanted to have a party where they were drinking, he should move it to his apartment... My conversation with him was clearly about alcoholic beverages.”

Mitchell agrees that Marchionda’s comment about eliminating the police department was an error. “That statement and a lot of others made by the mayor, including the reference to Officer Rago were inappropriate.”

Mitchell concludes, “At no time was I insubordinate to the mayor. I tried to politely end the phone conversation, but he ordered me to say on the phone.”

After the meeting, Marchionda said he had no specific time limit in mind for working things out with the PBA. “We need to take a step back and let cooler heads prevail,” he said, adding, “They (the PBA members) need to take time to digest this.”