Albany council member wants leader of police union to testify
The Albany Times Union by TIM O'BRIEN - February 3, 2009
ALBANY — Council member Corey Ellis wants to subpoena the leader of the police union over the issuance of "ghost tickets" that carry no fine. His resolution to subpoena Christian Mesley, president of the Albany Police Officers Union, prompted a heated debate at Monday's council meeting. Ellis sought to have Mesley appear at the council's March 2 meeting to answer questions under oath. But the council put off voting on the proposal until later this month. "We want to know how does a city employee implement a policy, and no one holds them accountable for it," Ellis said. In November, a Times Union investigation revealed thousands of ''free'' tickets were being issued annually, including those to vehicles that carried a coded windshield sticker distributed by the Albany Police Officers Union. The newspaper's investigation uncovered numerous instances in which the no-fine tickets were being issued to vehicles registered to the girlfriends and spouses of police officers, bar owners, retired officers and others.
The amount of free tickets being issued was equal to several hundred thousand dollars per year in fines under a system that dates at least to the early 1990s. Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti made a motion to postpone Ellis's resolution until the council's Feb. 19 meeting. That would enable the council to discuss the process for issuing a subpoena and who they might seek to testify at a caucus at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 12, he said. While the council has the legal power to require people to give testimony, members never invoke it. "I'm expressing no position on the merits of the motion," Conti insisted. "I think it appropriate we have that discussion, that we set out a procedure that is sane, rational and orderly so we know where we're going." Ellis decried the motion, saying repeatedly it was an attempt to "squash" the subpoena. The council has a long history of allowing police to address the council without being sworn, he said, and then letting issues go. "I sat here for three years and watched people sit before us and not give us the whole story," Ellis said. "We should vote yes or no if we want to subpoena someone. You need to have a discussion on whether to put someone under oath?"
The existence of the ghost tickets was made public in November, Ellis said. While Conti issued a letter raising questions right away, Ellis said, he waited until Monday to invite Mesley to speak to the council without being under oath. Reached after the meeting, Mesley said he would talk to his lawyer first but "I don't see any reason why we wouldn't fully cooperate." At the meeting, Conti and others said Ellis could have talked to other members first, but instead brought his motion Monday without advance notice. "The first time anyone saw it was when they sat down at their desks," he said. "Whether this is the first place to go, I'm not sure."
Council member Michael O'Brien said he is glad Ellis raised the issue. "I appreciate the fact there is a need to take action about a practice that is improper whose origins may have been in some kind of union activity," he said. "I think there is a lot more common ground than the emotion of the moment would indicate." The council voted 10-3, with two members absent, to set the motion aside until the next meeting. Ellis was joined in opposition by members Barbara Smith and Dominick Calsolaro. "This has been going on now since November," Calsolaro said. "There comes a time where you have to take a stand and say, 'Enough is enough. We asked for this information, and we want it.' " Tim O'Brien can be reached at 454-5092 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.