One year after entering office with a mandate for change, Mayor Shayne Gallo has pushed ahead with an agenda centered on revitalizing the city by battling blight, forming partnerships with state, federal and county government and ending what he calls a “culture of entitlement” at the highest levels of municipal government.
But the 53-year-old attorney’s combative and uncompromising style has alienated some of the very people he needs to make the vision a reality — even as it has earned him praise from Kingstonians fed up with business as usual.
Gallo won the Democratic Party nomination after a bitter and agonizingly close (it was decided by seven votes) primary with Alderman Hayes Clement, who ran with support from most of the city’s Democratic Party establishment. He went on to beat Republican Alderman Ron Polacco in a landslide. Though he ran as an outsider bent on shaking city government out of lassitude and cronyism, Gallo, son of a former Common Council president and brother of the late mayor T.R. Gallo, came to the job with intimate knowledge of the city’s political and municipal infrastructure. He served as an assistant corporation counsel in the administration of Mayor James Sottile and before that worked as a labor attorney representing Kingston’s Police Benevolent Association in contract talks with city. The pairing of a deep background in city government and a fierce determination for reform made Gallo perhaps uniquely qualified to tackle Kingston’s complex and longstanding problems.
Once sworn in on Jan. 1, 2012, the shake-up at City Hall began immediately, and dramatically. Just weeks after taking over, Gallo announced that Fire Chief Rick Salzmann had resigned rather than face disciplinary action over alleged “issues of time and attendance” that emerged as City Comptroller John Tuey began centralizing all pay and vacation accrual records. (Previously, they had been handled by department heads.) Two weeks later, Salzmann’s hand-picked replacement, Assistant Chief Chris Rea, was placed on unpaid leave over, Gallo said, the same “issues of time and attendance.” The showdown with the fire department culminated in a City Hall press conference where, before an audience of reporters and grim-faced firefighters, Gallo announced that he had requested a State Comptroller’s Office audit of the department, vowed to seek a new Chief from outside the ranks and implied that issues in the department went beyond the two sacked officials.
It was the first public indication of a trait that would become a hallmark of Gallo’s administration— an unstinting pugnacity and willingness to publicly question the motives, integrity or competence of individuals and entities both public and private. Over the past year, at one time or another, Gallo has offered harsh public criticism of housing developer Steve Aaron, at least three members of the Common Council, the Ulster County Department of Social Services, city union leaders, his former boss and predecessor as mayor, Jim Sottile, and the entire state legislature, to name a few.
Common Council Majority Leader Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2) has been a particular target of Gallo’s wrath. Gallo has repeatedly accused the onetime city and county Democratic committee chairman of working to undermine his agenda on behalf of the same “Democratic party elites” who opposed his nomination back in 2011. The clash was on stark display in March when Gallo and Hoffay, unbeknownst to one another, submitted to the council separate versions of legislation to tighten up the city’s ethics rules. Gallo claimed that Hoffay’s version contained restrictions on political activity that were aimed at hobbling his re-election prospects and maintaining the power of the city Democratic Committee. The debacle caused an exasperated Council President Jim Noble to call for better communication between the mayor and the majority leader. The legislation, meanwhile, remains in limbo.
One year after taking office, Gallo’s record on legislation is mixed. Gallo has successfully pushed for new ordinances making it easier for the city to seize and demolish unsafe buildings and hold tenants accountable for hazardous conditions in rental properties have won council approval. But another piece of legislation which would have mandated “turnover inspections” each time a rental unit changed hands was shot down.
“I don’t think the council and the mayor’s office have gelled yet as far as working together as closely as they should be,” said Noble.
The former labor attorney has brought the same uncompromising style to ongoing negotiations with his onetime clients. Labor negotiations are typically conducted behind closed doors before a contract is presented for council and union approval. Gallo, by contrast, publicly broadcast his demands: a wage freeze and significant union concessions on staffing rules and vacation time payouts. Then he backed up his bargaining position by putting forth a budget which made no provisions for raises or retirement payouts.
Veteran Alderman Bob Senor (D-Ward 8) praised much of Gallo’s work with the council, including the passage of a zero-growth city budget that contained no service cuts. But, Senor said, the mayor’s uncompromising attitude may sometimes hinder his agenda.