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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 26, 2010

Why did Altamont tweak police to keep Salerno?

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Process matters. Following the law — both in letter and spirit — matters. When it comes to choosing a leader, involving the public is important, too.

This year, we’ve seen a stark contrast as two local elected bodies — the Guilderland School Board and the Altamont Village Board —have faced a crisis in leadership.

The district’s superintendent, John McGuire, surprised the school board when he announced last November that he would retire on July 1. However, he gave the district about 10 months’ notice so that the board could implement an orderly process to find a replacement.

The school board made one misstep early in the process — violating the state’s Open  Meetings Law — but then, once the violation was pointed out on this page, the board righted itself, forgoing a second planned, closed meeting to discuss the hiring procedure. It held that meeting in public, instead, and what followed was a transparent process.

Forums were held to get community input on what qualities were desired in a school leader, committees including representatives from school and community groups — educators like to call them stakeholders — had a chance to interview candidates and weigh in.

The final selection between the top two candidates was made by the school board and announced in a public session.

In Altamont, however, the process was muddy. The village board apparently didn’t know that its public safety commissioner, Anthony Salerno, planned to retire. The board was silent when asked at its June 1 meeting if Salerno had taken a Civil Service exam in May, which was required for him to keep his job.

Afterwards, Trustee Christine Marshall told our reporter, saying that she spoke for the board, “We have not been looking for someone else. We’re very happy with Mr. Salerno’s performance.”

Mayor James Gaughan, who has direct authority over the commissioner position, said he wouldn’t reveal if Salerno had taken the exam, and Salerno himself, when asked if he’d taken it, threatened to sue the newspaper if we wrote about it.

Looking into the matter, we learned Altamont had requested that Salerno  be exempt from taking the exam. The state’s Civil Service Commission denied the request in July 2009, finding a “lack of compelling evidence” and citing “the “clear practicability” of the exam. None of this was discussed publicly.

After the Civil Service list came out and Salerno’s name wasn’t on it, he told the board at its July 6 meeting that he had been planning to retire all along and that’s why he didn’t take the exam.

If that were the case, why wouldn’t he simply have said so earlier? And why would he have applied to Albany to be the city’s new police chief?

The village board then had just 60 days to canvass the list, as required by law, presumably to find a new leader. The top three candidates did not respond to letters sent by the village; the fourth and final candidate, a captain with the local sheriff’s department, was interested, but the board wasn’t interested in interviewing him.

The mayor has claimed that the public supports keeping Salerno but there has been no survey or polling to back up that claim. The “Recruitment Committee” was made up solely of two board members — Chairwoman Kerry Dineen and Marshall — and no community stakeholders.

If Salerno wanted to keep his job, he should have taken the required exam. He chose not to.

The village had several options it could have followed to find a police leader. It could have interviewed the captain who qualified and was interested in the job. It could have made a provisional appointment of a candidate, who would have had to pass the required exam later; this is the same way in which Salerno was appointed. He was one of 14 candidates who applied for the job five years ago; a dozen were interviewed.

Or, the board, through the county’s Civil Service Department, could have worked with the state to access the lists of those who qualified for police chief, since the exam is identical to that for public safety commissioner.

But the board, by its own admission, wanted to keep Salerno.

The recruitment committee and the mayor met with Albany County’s Civil Service Department on Aug. 3 to work out a plan. This meeting violated the State’s Open Meetings Law in two ways. The mayor, Dineen, and Marshall constituted a quorum of the five-member village board, which, by law, requires that meetings be posted in advance and open to the public. Also, as explained by Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, “The committee itself is a public body covered by the Open Meetings Law, which means that the gathering should have been preceded by notice and held open to the public, unless there was a basis for going into executive session.”

There was not. Restructuring the village police department does not meet one of the eight criteria allowed for executive sessions.

“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy,” says the state’s Open Meetings Law. “The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants.”

By unanimous vote Tuesday night, the five village board members agreed to restructure the police department so that Salerno is the “team leader.” The team will consist of 10 part-time officers and Salerno, who will work 20 hours a week. He’s getting a 50-percent raise in hourly rate.

Salerno had been paid about  $40,000 for a 40-hour workweek; he’ll now be paid $29,900 for 20 hours a week. (Salerno collects a pension of about $45,000 annually and the cap for being able to do that is set at $30,000.) A Civil Service exam is not required for a part-time post.

In its effort to circumvent the Civil Service Law, the village has said it does not have a police chief. However, the state’s Village Law requires village police departments to have a chief. Altamont can’t have it both ways.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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