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Mayor vetoes law firm payment in spat over Lackwanna police chief

Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski on Thursday vetoed a measure passed last week by Lackawanna lawmakers to pay Barclay Damon almost $22,000 in legal fees incurred in the ongoing dispute over questionable payments made to Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr.

It’s the second time Szymanski vetoed a payment to the law firm hired by the Council to investigate more than $36,000 in questionable payments made to Michel.

The 3-2 vote authorizing the payment occurred during a spirited debate by Council members that evolved into a brief executive session.

The swing vote was lodged by Third Ward Councilman Joseph Jerge, who initially voted against the payment. But after emerging from the closed session, Jerge changed his stance and passed on voting. According to procedural rules, Jerge’s pass counted as a “yes” vote, and the measure was approved.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to pay the legal bill,” said Jerge. “At the moment I just don’t think it’s money well spent. When the comptroller found out these funds were being paid (to Michel) she stopped it. My real concern is that the city attorney knew about it for an entire year and did nothing to stop it.

“I don’t think what the chief did was criminal,” said Jerge, “but if he took money that was inappropriately given to him, he should pay it back. And I don’t think he has to pay it back in a lump sum. He could pay it back at the same rate he received it.”

First Ward Councilman Abdulsalam K. Noman and Second Ward Council Woman Annette Iafallo voted against the payment to Barclay Damon.

“As a matter of principle I voted against it,” said Iafallo. “There was no supporting documentation offered, no backup material. I needed to say no. I didn’t like the way things have been handled from the start.”

Michel, a 35-year veteran of the Lackawanna police force, has been embroiled in a series of contentious incidents including a dispute with the City Council over $36,000 in pay and the suspension of an officer who appeared at a Council meeting to request an update on the dispute. In addition, he is being sued over a hit-and-run traffic accident that injured an off-duty Buffalo police officer.

The Lackawanna Council hired outside counsel to determine whether it could retrieve the more than $36,000 in sick pay and overtime compensation benefits paid to Michel from 2011 to 2013.

The latest payment brings the total bill for legal services in the Michel probe to almost $65,000

Michel, who hired a publicist and an attorney, appeared at a news conference in October to announce his intent to sue the City of Lackawanna for back payments of sick, vacation and longevity benefits.

“As a chief, I go into work every day. I do my job. I’ve done it well,” Michel said at the conference. “I was promised these benefits by the previous administration. These were the same benefits paid to the chiefs prior to me.”

Michel rose through the ranks from patrol officer. He was appointed police chief in 2009. His salary is $80,829.

Noman questioned whether cash-strapped Lackawanna can afford to pay the legal fees.

“It’s just too much money,” Noman said. “It’s up to the mayor what should be done about the police chief. Yes, we presented our case to the citizens of Lackawanna telling them something is wrong. Personally, I feel the chief needs to return the payments because the money belongs to the taxpayers.”

Council President Hank Pirowski and Fourth Ward Councilman Keith Lewis voted in favor of the Barclay Damon payment.

In October, lawmakers unanimously voted to override the mayoral veto of an initial payment to the law firm.

The Council’s final regularly scheduled meeting of the year is slated for Monday. On the agenda is a resolution that would continue the Michel probe.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com