Harassment complaint between officer, mayor

GOWANDA – According to a local lawyer, there is an alleged harassment complaint involving the Gowanda mayor.

Michael Benson, who is representing officer Jen Alessi, spoke with the OBSERVER and said there is a complaint involving Alessi and Mayor Heather McKeever.

According to Benson, the incident happened prior to a village meeting. He was attending the special meeting of the village board when prior to the meeting, it apparently got “heated.”

“The meeting got a little heated. I walked in on the meeting because it was the same night I appeared in front of the village board,” said Benson. “Officer (Jen) Alessi alleged that the mayor was harassing her and filed a harassment complaint.”

To work on resolving the complaint, Benson said he was scheduled to work with Trustee Barb Nephew who was appointed as temporary compliance officer for the police department. She replaced former Officer in Charge Joseph Alessi who could not perform the duties as he is the spouse of Jen Alessi. He also contacted Deborah Chadsey, village attorney, who said she was unable to discuss the matter. At the March 11 village board meeting, the board approved to hire an outside agency to handle the complaint.

“She (Chadsey) is a highly competent attorney. She said it out of respect that she’s been ordered not to talk to me,” he said. “I found out the board hired an outside attorney from (reading) the (OBSERVER).”

Benson said his client also received a letter from McKeever on March 12 citing her allotted hours for employment were in danger of expiring before the end of the fiscal year. Benson said since the Gowanda Police Department is a part-time department, the mayor is considered police commissioner. Pursuant to civil service regulations, a part-time officer has a cap of hours he or she can work in a fiscal year.

“Basically, it says any part-time police officer can only work 1,040 hours. The mayor then claimed … to notify (my client) that it appears her allowable work time will expire at the end of the village contract with the school district. Consequently, all and any time for the remaining fiscal year must be dedicated to the SRO (school resource officer) position while the village board discusses it with the school district how it will modify this year’s contract (the letter read) ,” said Benson. “For the allowable time, Jen Alessi has 965 hours left. So there’s no time problem.”

Benson attended a recent Gowanda board of education meeting and said he had discussed the matter with the superintendent who said there is no danger to the SRO’s contract. Benson wanted to ensure Alessi was kept in the schools and the DARE program continued.

“Jen Alessi is a great resource to the community. Jen with her job that she does with the school helping out kids, sometimes she reaches out to the community. I don’t want to see that program diminish in the school,” said Benson. “She cares a lot about those children. She wants to make sure those kids have that program.”

He also expanded on her experience and training as a well-trained officer citing she has worked under the Cattaraugus County District Attorney as a former criminal investigator and has been a member of a narcotics task force in the past.

“She has invaluable experience in juvenile law, juvenile crimes,” said Benson. “She also gets the community to get involved with these kids. Yes, I am a lawyer but I’m also there as part of the community.”

Earlier this month, the village board also demoted Officer in Charge Joseph Alessi. When asked by the OBSERVER if Benson thought this harassment complaint and the demotion were related incidents, Benson said yes but declined to comment further.

McKeever also declined to comment since the matter is a personnel issue.

Comments on this article may be sent to smcdonnell@observertoday.com