The town of Cicero has agreed to settle a $2 million lawsuit filed by a town resident in federal court for a fraction of that amount.
At its regular board meeting Wednesday Feb. 8, the town board authorized Supervisor Jim Corl to sign a confidential settlement agreement regarding Merola v. Town of Cicero et al. Albert Merola Jr. of Brewerton sued the town of Cicero, the Cicero Police Department and Officer James Snell in federal court on March 23, 2011. The suit alleged that Snell assaulted Merola during an attempt to arrest him without cause on April 12, 2010. Merola, who was permanently disabled in a work accident in 2000, wears a neck brace; he alleged in the lawsuit that Snell continued to harass him after the incident, pulling him over without cause on April 17, 2010 and attempting to charge him with driving while intoxication, but letting him go after three box tests revealed that Merola wasn’t intoxicated.
Merola originally sought $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages, plus attorneys’ fees. Instead, the town will pay Merola $4,500. The town’s insurance company will actually cut the check; the town is responsible for a $2,500 deductible.
Corl said the town’s insurance carrier and the attorneys for both parties requested the confidentiality agreement, so the details of the case were not available for public discussion.
Resident Mark Venesky objected to the board’s handling of the case. Venesky is also a member of the Cicero Committee for Open Government.
“In the spirit of public openness, my understanding is that we had a citizen who was assaulted by a police officer who happens to be the son of the police chief,” Venesky said. “To me, that could create an impression of a conflict of interest. I don’t agree at any time that it should be tolerated that a policeman should be attacked, certainly, but my understanding is that the citizen’s account was corroborated. Having a policeman on the force whose father is the chief remaining on the force — I have a real issue with the fact that he’s still on the force…. If there’s merit, and obviously, we paid somebody, why is Officer Snell still with the town?”
Venesky also suggested that the town amend its hiring policy so that relatives of town employees could not be hired for open positions within the town.
Councilman Tim Burtis addressed the issue of Snell’s continued employment with the town.
“It’s still an allegation,” Burtis said. “You’re talking about a police officer who gets paid to handle issues, and we’re in an ‘I sue you, you sue me’ community. I understand your point, but my point is, if you’ve read all the documents and you understand what all these officers do, it’s very difficult to perform their job. In my opinion, look at the award, and you can see through what the judge thought.”
Police Chief Joseph Snell was not present at Wednesday’s meeting.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.