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Utica fire chief placed on leave in move some call political

Payne Horning
The Utica Fire Department chief has been placed on paid administrative leave, a move that some city officials believe was political.

Russell Brooks is a staple of the Utica Fire Department. He's been there for 42 years and run it for the past 13. But last Friday, Brooks was told to turn in his cell phone and vehicle and leave the building.

"It was all political, political vindictiveness," Brooks said. "It's just typical Utica politics and I became a victim."

Brooks says he has had several disagreements with Mayor Rob Palmieri over the years, like when he came out against a proposed asphalt plant on the city's north side in 2016. Brooks thinks that rivalry may have affected his request for the city to acknowledge the leukemia he says he developed while helping New York city firefighters after 9/11. He needs the city to acknowledge that service so the World Trade Center Health Program can cover his cancer treatment.

The mayor won't confirm why Brooks was placed on leave, which is upsetting some city councilors like Joe Marino.

"We have the right to know why the chief has been removed from his position since we found him to be physically capable. He’s claimed to be physically capable, so we want answers," Marino said. "Not only does the council deserve them but the public deserves them and more importantly Chief Brooks deserves answers."

Marino says he too suspects political motivations. 

"That smacks of old-time Utica politics," Marino said. "It’s reprehensible for this to take hold, especially with a guy like Chief Brooks -- served 42 years, built a reputation in the community as a genuine hero, served in 9/11 - enough is enough with the politics in this city."

In a statement, the city's corporation counsel Will Borrill says the mayor is prohibited by law from commenting on a personnel matter. 

"In the past, when the city has breached these protocols it has created costly repercussions," Borrill said in a statement. "Given this history, it is disingenuous for former or current elected officials to seek disclosure of information they know we are not allowed to make. Mayor Robert Palmieri steadfastly maintains the city must follow the law in all circumstances, no matter who the person of the subject matter concerns."

Marino has invited Palmieri to speak to the council about the decision in an executive session. Borrill says that cannot happen until Brooks signs a personnel file release form.

"The city wishes to be transparent in this matter, but it would require Chief Brooks to grant permission to release documents contained in his personnel file, such as health information, which is protected by New York state civil rights law and New York state public health law," Borrill said.

Brooks says his lawyer has advised him against signing that form. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.