NISKAYUNA — The state Department of Labor is investigating claims that Niskayuna Supervisor Joe Landry retaliated against Town Court employees after the court clerk filed a safety-related complaint.
According to the town’s assistant attorney, Alaina Finan, the Department of Labor has not issued its findings, so the town considers the matter ongoing and will not comment. Landry did not return phone calls but, through Finan, indicated he would not comment.
Landry is up for re-election in November. He is also an attorney for Schenectady County and the chairman of the Schenectady County Democratic Party.
The Town Court is not a part of the town the way the highway or community programs departments are. Rather, it is governed by the state Office of Court Administration (OCA). The courtroom and ancillary facilities are housed within Town Hall, but court employees are not hired or fired by Landry.
Town Justice Steve Swinton’s court clerk is Barbara Pidgeon, and she has been a court employee for 21 years.
At the heart of the conflict is an entrance on the north side of Town Hall. The door has long been understood to be an entrance for use by court employees and an emergency exit for the municipal building.
In 2008, his first year as judge, Swinton asked the OCA to perform a security assessment. According to Swinton and Pidgeon, the assessment results showed the court needed security updates, including better outdoor lighting over the employees’ entrance.
“We agreed with the assessment,” Pidgeon said. “We come out of court at 10 or 11 at night, and it would be pitch dark. It’s not unreasonable to think disgruntled defendants or their families could be waiting in the parking lot.”
Landry received a copy of the assessment, and Swinton brought up the issue of installing the door light at the town’s monthly Public Safety Committee Meetings. For four years, Swinton said he raised the issue of lighting for the back door but received no response.
“I was never given a reason why they wouldn’t do it, so I stopped putting it on the agenda,” Swinton said.
Getting no results, he stopped attending the meetings. The other town judge, Peter Scagnelli, started representing the courts on the town’s Public Safety Committee.
In the fall of 2016, though there had been no direct threats toward judges or court personnel, Pidgeon was still concerned about the safety of court employees following court proceedings.
She was sharing her concerns about the safety and security of court employees with a friend, who was also a labor attorney, and the friend told Pidgeon that if she did not feel safe in the workplace, she could file a complaint with Public Employee Safety and Health, a department within the state Department of Labor. Officials would then have to come out and assess the workplace for safety violations.
Pidgeon, in consultation with Swinton, made a formal complaint to the PESH office on Sept. 12, 2016, and state representatives inspected the court facilities.
PESH quickly recommended that a light be installed above the employees’ entrance and that the town conduct mandatory annual workplace violence training. The organization issued a citation, requiring the issues be addressed.
Pidgeon said that, shortly thereafter, the light was installed above the employees’ entrance.
In March, Landry sent an email to court employees telling them that, effective immediately, they were to enter and exit the building through the main entrance, like the rest of the town employees.
Shortly thereafter, a part-time court employee attempted to use her key in the court employees’ entrance and found that the lock had been disabled.
Pidgeon and Swinton say that forcing everyone to use the main entrance forces judges and court employees to pass defendants and family members who have not been subject to security searches, like the metal detector used before people are admitted to the courtroom. That could expose them to dangerous, volatile persons, they said.
Between mid-March and the end of April, Swinton met at least twice with Landry, including once with Scagnelli as a neutral party, with the goal of regaining access to the court employees’ entrance.
Swinton reported that Landry insisted the door was never meant to be an employee entrance. When the discussion escalated, with Landry and Swinton trading observations and accusations, Swinton left the meeting.
Swinton said that, when he was in the Town Hall lobby, Landry stood at the top of the stairs, pointed his finger at Swinton and yelled an obscenity-laced warning that Swinton would not get what he was looking for in the way of a concession over the entrance.
“We tried multiple times to resolve this without there being this kind of brouhaha,” Swinton said.
Suspicious that Landry denied access in reaction to Pidgeon’s filing of the September 2016 complaint, Pidgeon filed a second complaint, this time alleging retaliation. It is that complaint that the Labor Department is now investigating.
Pidgeon said she just wants access to the employee entrance she’s used for more than two decades.
“I just want the door back,” Pidgeon said. “I want judges and court employees to go in and out safely.”
Information regarding the complaints against Landry seem to have been kept from Niskayuna Town Board members. Denise Murphy McGraw reported that she — and she believes the rest of the board — first learned about the investigation Tuesday.
“I was made aware of it last night when it broke,” Murphy McGraw said on Wednesday. She went on to say that she considers Swinton to be a friend, is highly concerned about the situation and is looking to get to the bottom of what happened.
“I care deeply for every person who works in Town Hall,” she said. “If people are feeling unsafe, I want them to tell me.”
She said she had not spoken with Landry since the news came out.
Once the Department of Labor has finalized its investigation, it may refer its findings to the New York Attorney General’s Office, which would consider what, if any, action should be taken.
The Niskayuna Republican Committee issued the following statement in reaction to the story Wednesday afternoon:
“This issue of Mr. Landry’s retaliation against Judge Swinton and Chief Clerk Barb Pidgeon is a disgrace to the Town of Niskayuna. This is a blatant lack of respect and concern for employee safety, the whistle-blower law and a sad example of Mr. Landry’s unprofessional behavior and lack of leadership. It is a further insult to our residents that the Town Board denies any knowledge of this issue; they are either not being truthful or not doing their job.”