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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 19, 2006

Diligence, openness, and accountability are all essential for public officials

Anthony Salerno was hired as Altamont’s public safety commissioner over a year ago. The long-time Albany cop had his work cut out for him. Many in this peaceful village of 1,800, which covers just one square mile, felt harassed by the inordinately large number of police officers and police-officers-in-training.

Villagers complained on our pages and to the board of trustees about unwarranted traffic stops and meddling in private affairs. "There is so much radar in the village, I am surprised we all don’t suffer from radiation," wrote one disgruntled citizen.

After all, Altamont is already served by the Guilderland town police, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, and the State Troopers.

A citizens’ committee was established to evaluate the Altamont Police Department. The committee surveyed residents and business owners in the village and concluded the police department should stay but needed restructuring.

In the village elections that followed, three of those committee members were voted into office — Mayor James Gaughan, who chaired the committee, and trustees Kerry Dineen and Dean Whalen.

The new board hired Salerno who wasted no time in better organizing the department. The number of part-timers has been cut by half and police records of arrests are now meticulously filled out and available to the press and public. Salerno also set about drafting standard operating procedures for the department. These were all good things and welcome changes.

The outcome at this month’s board meeting, however, proved disappointing. Although several board members said they had not read the manual, they proceeded to adopt the procedures anyway on a provisional basis.

We congratulate Trustee Harvey Vlahos, the sole dissenter. He wanted to put off the vote until all the board members had read the hundreds of pages in the manual.

Vlahos raised several important questions about the procedures. "Officers are encouraged to be aggressive but courteous and respectful of constitutional rights," Vlahos read from the manual.

This is in a village where citizens have complained about harassment from police for several years and where complaints have been aired publicly several times in the last year alone about police aggressiveness.

At the same October meeting, the board accepted a resignation from an officer, Josh Davenport, who had been accused of harassment. He had been suspended twice, once after a local convenience-store clerk had complained in a letter to us that "Officer Davenport has repeatedly and consistently used foul, abrasive, and threatening language when approaching me at my place of employment."

Vlahos read from another section of the manual, on employee evaluations in the police department: "The review will be conducted by someone superior and then the evaluation will be reviewed and signed-off by the commissioner of public safety/chief."

"We don’t have a lieutenant or sergeant...so basically it makes the commissioner judge, jury, and executioner," said Vlahos.

Perhaps this passage was merely copied from the manual of another larger department that had a number of ranking officers. But it should be written to serve our village.

Without answering these questions, Vlahos asked, why would other board members vote to adopt the procedures — unless they hadn’t read it.

Most troubling of all was Salerno’s response to Trustee William Aylward, the only board member other than Vlahos to ask questions. "I feel this is basically unfair," Salerno responded.

A legislative body should probe the author of policy before adopting it. What is unfair to all of us is having representatives who do not read procedures before they adopt them.

We’ve all seen the problems that arose recently after elected school board members in Voorheesville trusted the contents of contracts to administrators rather than reading them and raising questions themselves.

Adopting the manual provisionally was better than outright adoption because changes can be made, but the police are still working under those procedures.

Salerno did not address any of the issues that Vlahos raised during the October meeting and he would not comment on the manual or answer questions about it from our reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer.

Villagers have a right to know the procedures under which their police operate. Our letters pages have run comments praising earlier Altamont police chiefs who were able to "maintain safety, law, and order, while fostering a sense of freedom and welcome."

This is an admirable goal and could begin with good communication. We urge the village to post the manual on-line so that not only the officials can read it, but the citizens as well.

Diligence, openness, and accountability are essential in public officials — both elected board members and appointed safety commissioners — if there is to be public trust.

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