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CAYUGA COUNTY

After past incidents, Cayuga County legislator has limited access to office building

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A Cayuga County legislator accused of making threats to social services staff has restrictions in place for interactions with child protective services employees and which floors of the Cayuga County Office Building he may visit, according to a February email from county Legislature Chairman Keith Batman.

Frank Reginelli, legislator representing District 11, "is not to go to the 2nd, 3rd or 4th floor without notifying security," according to the email sent to Community Services Director Ray Bizzari. The Citizen was provided the email July 28 following a Freedom of Information Law request. Batman added in the email that "he is to avoid, to the extent possible, all contact with the staff involved in previous incidents."

Last week, Batman downplayed the restrictions, saying they are voluntary and don't impact Reginelli's ability to do his job.

The new revelations followed the release last month of a Cayuga County Sheriff's Office report from December 2016 that said a child protective services supervisor had said in 2014 that Reginelli followed her into the parking lot of the county office building and through the city of Auburn. Terri Hoffmann, a labor relations specialist with the Civil Service Employees Association, told The Citizen on July 28 that Reginelli had also ridden the elevator with the employee prior to following her in his car, and told her she should be shot. Hoffman said a family member of Reginelli's was involved in a social services case, and then he made threats to employees again in 2016.

In December 2016, Bizzari said Reginelli told him his staff "all should be shot," according to the sheriff's office report. Bizzari filed a police report, and an investigation concluded that Reginelli committed no crimes. 

Reginelli has continued to deny the allegations, calling them "erroneous and salacious." Reginelli declined to speak with The Citizen on Thursday for this story.

In a December email to Batman, former County Administrator Suzanne Sinclair, County Undersheriff Jim Stowell and Human Resources Administrator Mike Russell, Bizzari said he did not believe Reginelli would cease harassing his staff. He called for Reginelli to be accompanied by security at all times, or to resign.

"Staff has been, and continues to be, very concerned and worried for a number of reason(s)," he wrote on Dec. 22. "It's troubling to us all that someone in that position, with all the powers over personnel, budget and policy threatens and intimidates the staff whose sole job is to protect the most vulnerable children."

In an interview with The Citizen on Wednesday, Batman said there are no real restrictions on Reginelli, and the investigation has fully exonerated him. Batman called the floor limitations in the county office building a "gentleman's agreement," saying that it was completely voluntary with "no legal or procedural force," but something Reginelli had been abiding by.

"Frank Reginelli is a 77-year-old small man, who has no guns," Batman said. "According to a police report he has no weapons. He has no proclivity towards violence, and so to be physically afraid of him, I don't know what to say. The investigation exonerated him. He took steps to make people at ease. As far as I know, it's resolved."

Batman did not think the voluntary restrictions limited Reginelli's ability to serve his constituents, saying that it's not a legislator's place to go directly to staff. He said legislators should be working through the county administrator, and there's almost never an instance where a legislator needed to sit down with a department head or staff member.

"I see absolutely no reason he should resign," Batman said. "We heard no complaints about his service."

Bizzari said in a phone interview Thursday that he was not privy to the conversations around the voluntary agreement, and it was not his decision.

"I might have handled it differently if it was up to me," he said.

Hoffmann told The Citizen Thursday that she was unaware of the voluntary agreement, but she was glad to hear one was in place. She wished it had been done sooner, however, when a workplace violence incident report was filed in 2014.

The county denied The Citizen's Freedom of Information Law request for the workplace violence reports, stating that "there was no determination that the allegations rose to the level of a workplace violence incident," thus releasing the documents would be an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" under Public Officer's Law.

Hoffman questioned the county's contention that there was no wrongdoing.

"How could they be unfounded when they have a voluntary agreement that Reginelli won't visit floors two to four without notifying security," Hoffmann said.

Batman said the county takes complaints seriously, but in this instance, came up with no findings. He could not speak to 2014 allegations, but he said "there was no finding to lead to any action" for the 2016 allegations. He was not aware that former Legislature Chairman Michael Chapman had met with Reginelli in 2014 regarding the alleged incidents, but Cayuga County Attorney Fred Westphal said that nothing came of that conversation. Batman added that he had held a couple of meetings with social services employees to address any remaining concerns around Reginelli and the investigation.

"That group, and this is not hyperbole as I sometimes want to speak, one person said, 'What are you talking about?'" Batman said. "The majority of the people had no idea there was an issue. It is not a widespread problem, that was clear in the meeting. We talked it through."

Considering that employees may not want to talk in front of others, Batman added that he had made office hours available to meet one-on-one. Four employees came, but to talk about other issues, he said. 

Hoffman said she was not invited to any meetings, and she did not know if the employees involved knew about them. 

County Legislator Aileen McNabb-Coleman, who is the chair of the Ways and Means Committee and the Majority Leader, said she had thought the issue between staff and Reginelli was resolved. She said she wouldn't defend a legislator who had done something wrong, but in this case, there had been an investigation. 

"I don't know what more we can do," she said. "They (child protective services staff) have serious jobs and serious issues, and we need them to keep working and doing the best they can. But when there's provided to be no wrongdoing, then what do you do? I hope we'll hear from them if they want something different."

Through it all, Batman said some good came out of the investigations. The county has brought together a public safety committee.

"It came about as a result of this stuff, but it gets at the idea of responding to the perceptions of people that work here and the public," Batman said.

One of those things includes the identification passes visitors of the county office building need to get. Bizzari was glad for that, too. 

"I'm always concerned about workers' safety in the building and in the field," he said. "They're out in the field a lot alone, and recently, they had that identification (where) you come in the building and you have to show ID and stuff like that. I think they're really happy about that. It's a good way to track, the system also tracks people who have shown inappropriate behaviors, made threats and stuff like that so security knows who they are. Anything we can do to make the workers feel better protected is good for everyone."

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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