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November 29, 2016 - 10:22am

Legislators turn down DA's request for top assistant in heated meeting

posted by Howard B. Owens in budget, genesee county, news.

When the Genesee County Legislature's Ways and Means Committee meets next week, it will be asked to support a county budget that will pull $500,000 from reserves to help balance the budget and raise property taxes to $10.25 per thousand of assessed value.

It won't return a first assistant DA position to the District Attorney's Office, a decision made on an 8-1 vote by the Legislature that prompted Chairman Ray Cianfrini to call his fellow members, "hypocrites."

While other budget matters were discussed during Monday's meeting, the proposal to provide District Attorney Lawrence Friedman with a first assistant -- a position that hasn't been filled in the department for six years -- dominated the conversation.

Friedman tried to make the case for the position, which he intended to fill with Melissa Cianfrini, Ray Cianfrini's daughter-in-law.

Both Friedman and Ray Cianfrini questioned whether the Legislature's reluctance to fill the position, or, more, it's seeming unwillingness to set the salary at what they believe the position is worth, is driven by gender bias.

Friedman exited the meeting quickly after the overwhelming vote against the position and Cianfrini (who cast the one vote in favor of the job) was out the door of the Old Courthouse as soon as the meeting was adjourned.

The position is necessary, Friedman said, because there should be a second-in-command when he's not in the office, there should be somebody else in the office who can handle budget and human resource matters and there should be somebody trained in other aspects of the DA's job because traditionally the first assistant DA becomes the next DA if the position becomes vacant. Friedman was first assistant before he became DA and Robert Noonan was a first assistant before he became DA.

The lack of a first assistant puts the DA's office at a disadvantage, Friedman suggested, against the Public Defender's Office, which only recently acquired its first top assistant, and also has an investigator and a case worker that the DA's office doesn't have and Friedman has never sought.

The county attorney also has a top assistant, and 60 of the 62 district attorneys in the state, including all of the smaller counties, have first assistants, and those offices often also have investigators.

The first assistant also traditionally covered a couple of specialty law areas, such as civil forfeitures, which can generate revenue for the county, and cybercrime and child pornography -- specialties that have gone uncovered by the Genesee County DA's office since Dave Gann retired six years ago.

Legislator Bob Bausch, one of the Legislators who initially questioned the need for a first assistant in the DA's office, said he wondered if it was necessary in an office where all the ADAs are professionals and in the day and age of digital communications.

"Yes, in this day and age, I am accessible, even on vacation, by email and text messages and I’m not complaining about that, but I believe there should be somebody who is trained and has the experience necessary to serve in my absence," Friedman said.

Legislator Marianne Clattenburg questioned why after five years it was suddenly an urgent need in the DA's office to have a first assistant.

Friedman made the point that after Gann left, he was asked to cut spending in 2011 and again in 2012, so he didn't think it was appropriate then to ask to backfill the position.

"I waited five years and I realize it’s never going to be restored unless I push it," Freidman said to explain why he's asking for the position now.

Other members questioned whether the position was really necessary since the office was able to operate six years without it.

"I guess I wonder why we would be penalized because I’ve tried to comply and not pushed and not asked for more money all the time and I’ve waited and I’ve waited and I just feel it’s time," Friedman said. "You know, you could make us wait forever obviously, but I don’t think we ever should have gone without that position, but we did. In a sense, I feel, we were not forced to, but it was the right thing to do at the time. I hate to see us penalized for doing the right thing back then."

Included in Monday's discussion was the potential salary of the reconstituted position. In his initial request, Friedman asked for an increase in his salary budget of $30,000. County Manager Jay Gsell knocked that down to about $9,000, to bring the salary in line with recommendations of a management salary study completed four years ago.

Friedman argued that Melissa Cianfrini is underpaid relative to her 17 years experience as a litigator and that her salary is only where it should be now because of a grant received through the Department of Social Services to pay for prosecution of welfare fraud cases.

Traditionally, the county has paid a new top assistant what that person's predecessor made, which is how Friedman arrived at the $30,000 above Melissa Cianfrini's current salary.

That seemed to be the pay range Ray Cianfrini was pushing for because the next undersheriff, Greg Walker, will be paid the same $89,000 salary outgoing undersheriff William Sheron made. That is a salary that is about $3,000 more than recommended by the four-year-old management salary report.

Ray Cianfrini said it seemed only fair that if Walker was paid according to what the previous undersheriff made, which will represent a pay cut for Walker, then the new first assistant in the DA's office should be paid what the previous first assistant made. Or they should both be paid according to the recommended salary structure.

At a previous meeting, Cianfrini first raised the concern that the Legislature's potential unwillingness to raise the salary for the position was driven by gender bias.

Friedman brought that subject up again Monday evening.

"All I can say is I hope the potential of different treatment of our office is not based on the gender of the person who is going to be receiving the position," Friedman said.

Bausch was the first to speak up and reject that suggestion, noting that he has three daughters, one who is an attorney, and a wife who worked professionally until she retired.

"With members of the press here, I just want to make this point, because I don’t want to be hassled when I go home," Bausch said. "Don’t accuse me of saying this was an issue based on the sex of the employee, because I’ve got four women who are going to kill me.”

With the 8-1 vote against creating the position, the salary question was moot, and Cianfrini wasn't happy.

"Amazing, absolutely amazing," the chairman said. "It makes me think about whether there are other agendas involved here. Ok, let’s go on to the next … you’re all a bunch of hypocrites as far as I’m concerned.”

Some legislators took the barb in good humor, with Legislator Shelly Stein piping up to ask a question, "Hypocrite Stein, here."

Another topic covered Monday was what if any personnel cuts should be made in the planning department, or how the department might generate revenue to cover its expenses. Director Felipe Oltramari said when he first took over the department, it was short staffed and over the past year, with better staffing, they have been able to catch up on a lot of work.

A cut in staffing might mean the department would need to eliminate some of the technical assistance it provides to towns and villages, which helps ensure consistency and conformity in the application of zoning and code enforcement on projects.  

Stein, among others, suggested that down the road, municipalities might be charged a fee for such support.

It's either that or reduce the amount of sales tax revenue shared with the municipalities.

Bausch and Legislator Andrew Young continued their push for a five-year plan for county government. 

Revenue and expense woes are only going to get worse, so a plan is needed.

Young is worried about a treasurer's report that suggests the county will fall into insolvency within five years unless it stops dipping into its reserve funds to balance the budget.

Bausch believes the county will be forced to build a new jail within five years and the expert advice given to the county is that they will need $18 million in reserves when that project goes out to bond. Currently, the county is about $11 million short and Bausch doesn't see how the county closes that gap on its current course.

John Roach
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They voted not to give the Chairman's relative a promotion and pay raise, and the Chairman thinks it because of her gender. Could it be it looked like taking care of a relative? Or that they are cutting libraries, the parks and the Holland Land Office, so this pay raise is out of line?

Of course, the Chairman could have found the money if he was willing to suggest taking the money from the GCEDC, that has been getting more than $200,000 plus every year for years. But, no, can't cut that sacred cow more.

Dave Meyer
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I agree John,
Actually, it seems a little icky that he would even vote on that issue. Seems like he should have recused himself given the situation.

Also, regarding the GCEDC. I agree that that cow seems to continue to be sacred. I took a look at the budget and there are 2 items which total $413.1K. I'm probably not interpreting the codes with the numbers correctly, but there are 2 entries. One for $219.6K & one for $193.1K. Given the recent history, it would seem that some of that money could be eliminated.

Tony Burroughs
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Yeah I am actually shocked that his Daughter In Law would even be considered for the position. I mean in today's society haven't we seen enough nepotism and politically connected appointments to make us all puke??? If I were on the Legislature I would have voted YES on the condition that the appointee not be related or connected to any current County officials or managers. Then what would Mr. Cianfrini complain about???? Because shes a woman!!!????? Didn't they just say the position has been empty for 6 years???? Safe to say there are other obvious reasons. What a joke.

John Roach
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She might be the best attorney in the office and may well deserve the promotion. But, when your father-in-law is the Chairman of the Legislature, it just looks bad to try and give her the promotion and pay raise. And at the same time he supported cutting almost everything else. Guess he thought everyone would just go along. And when he lost the vote, he should have shut up and not called names.

Rick Hensel
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Maybe Friedman should take a pay cut equal to what his first assistant would make so he can have it filled. But then again, that being the case, it wouldn't be quite so important to fill it after all.

James Renfrew
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He should have abstained from voting on the issue and remained silent during the debate. For the simple reason that a close relative would have benefited from his vote.

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