By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — According to town officials, the issue of the disabled employee entrance that led to a complaint of retaliation being filed with the Department of Labor has been resolved.
Town Board member and Deputy Supervisor Denise Murphy McGraw on Sept. 28 issued statement that read:
“Niskayuna Town Supervisor Joe Landry and Town Justice Stephen Swinton have resolved the issue related to an entrance at Town Hall. The door is [in] operation for Town Court employees. Furthermore, the complaint is being withdrawn from Department of Labor.”
In April, court clerk Barbara Pidgeon, a 21-year veteran court employee, filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor alleging that Supervisor Joe Landry disabled the lock on a long-recognized employee entrance in retaliation for Pidgeon filing a separate complaint concerning safety lighting the previous October.
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.
At the heart of the conflict was an entrance on the north side of Town Hall.
In 2008, his first year as judge, Stephen 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 said 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 people, 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.
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.
Information regarding the complaints against Landry seemed to have been kept from Niskayuna Town Board members. Murphy McGraw reported that she — and she believes the rest of the board — first learned about the investigation on Sept. 26.
“I was made aware of it last night when it broke,” Murphy McGraw said the next day.
Landry is running for re-election in November. He is also an attorney for the Schenectady County Legislature and the chairman of the Schenectady County Democratic Party.
The Niskayuna Republican Committee issued the following statement on Sept. 27 in reaction to the retaliation complaint:
“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.”