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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 16, 2006

Democracy is messy

Democracy is messy. Sometimes, government moves forward on the energy and wisdom that comes from clashing views.

We take our role seriously as a newspaper in a democracy, providing at least three essentials. Our news stories — for instance, on the village of Altamont — are meant to provide an objective view of what is interesting and newsworthy. We do not record every comment at a meeting; citizens can watch the broadcast for that. Instead, we listen carefully to what takes place, then read relevant documents and talk to those who have useful information on the subject at hand.

Secondly, we write editorials. These are the newspaper’s opinions on what has transpired in our community. We often try to point out solutions rather than just harp on flaws.

Finally, we provide a forum for the open exchange of ideas on issues important to our community. Over the years, we’ve seen problems get solved and viewpoints be expanded through our opinion pages.

Why the primer on newspapers"

We continue to hear from Altamont citizens, with varying views, about our coverage of the village board’s adopting standard operating procedures for the Altamont Police Department.

In our news pages, we have written about the October meeting of the board of trustees. We stated, correctly, that two trustees — Harvey Vlahos and Dean Whalen — said they had not had time to read the manual, which has over 200 pages. Once we were able to get a copy of the manual, through a Freedom of Information Law request, we ran a story highlighting what is in the document, with comments from the public safety commissioner, Anthony Salerno, and the mayor, James Gaughan.

We also ran an editorial which began by praising the progress that has been made in the police 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," we wrote.

We went on to call the outcome of the October meeting "disappointing." We believed then as we do now that, if two out of five board members say they haven’t had a chance to read a document, it’s best to wait to adopt it.

We also noted the commissioner’s unwillingness to answer our questions about the manual and we urged the village to make the manual available to the public, posting it on its website so citizens as well as officials can read it. "Villagers have a right to know the procedures under which their police operate," we wrote. Mayor Gaughan has since told our reporter that the village is working on this.

Trustee Vlahos raised some valuable questions at the October meeting. He was concerned that, in a village where citizens have complained for years about aggressive policing, the manual encourages officers to be "aggressive," and he was concerned that officer review is to be conducted by a superior and then signed off by the commissioner.

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

Our own review of the document shows it is cumbersome, repetitive, and, most importantly, meant for a much larger department. The commissioner’s response that this allows for future growth isn’t convincing. Most Altamont residents feel there are too many village police — one full-time and eight part-time — in a village of 1,800 that is already served by the Guilderland Police, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, and the State Troopers.

At their November meeting, the village trustees rushed through their agenda because, as the mayor put it, they were in "cramped" quarters on Election Night, but then they spent nearly an hour discussing the police manual and criticizing our coverage. In our news story on the November meeting, we listed this as a brief "other business" item, eager to move on to something more newsworthy — a couple building a house on Gun Club Road with a polluted well, unable to get village water due to a moratorium.

Trustee William Aylward began the critique by saying he was concerned about the newspaper’s portrayal of the board and about a letter to the editor Vlahos had written.

"Did you do the cartoon"" Aylward asked Vlahos. "The Enterprise is now doing cartoons for letters to the editor""

We introduced our cartoonist, Forest Byrd, of Knox, in our May 11 issue. He is a talented artist and gifted observer and we feel lucky to have him. We don’t tell him what to draw anymore than we tell columnists what to write. He had drawn a cartoon for the Nov. 2 issue of a blind-folded board feeling a thick police manual.

Aylward then went on to read the minutes of the October meeting.

"That is a heck of a lot different than what I read about it," Aylward said, looking at The Enterprise reporter sitting in the front row.

He then noted all the times the words "courteous" and "respectful" appeared in the manual and said that it was unfair to focus on the word "aggression."

Trustee Kerry Dineen, who wrote a letter criticizing our coverage, said she agreed "100 percent" with Aylward. She also said she worked in education and, "These manuals are a guideline."

"If you want to leave the word ‘aggressive’ in , I would not vote for that," said Vlahos, indicating an officer could, indeed, use that as a guideline.

Aylward said there are a lot of legal questions involved in adopting the manual and he recommended a "law committee" be formed, including Dineen, the village attorney, and the mayor, to "look at some of the consequences."

"I’m the one who’s got questions so I think I should be on the committee," said Vlahos.

"I think what’s confusing to you is the wording...It follows case law in New York State," interjected Salerno. Referring to Valhos’s work, running Altamont Manor, he went on, "I know it’s not what you do...I don’t do his job and he doesn’t do my job."

The time for review of legal consequences would have been before adopting the manual. And the words describing standard operating procedures ought to be easily understood.

Mayor James Gaughan said he was concerned "about the perception of a process."

"What I’m fearful of is that the village of Altamont citizens know clearly we do not go blindly forward with our business," said the mayor. He prefers to have board members work things out before meetings and recommended Vlahos meet about his concerns with Salerno.

"We should be very careful...about what we claim in the rush of a meeting without making sure we are clear," said Gaughan.

We recommend the policy-setting process used by the Guilderland School Board, one with which Dineen is no doubt familiar, being a teacher in that district.

A number of years ago, the school board, faced with the need for policy revision for the district, decided to set up a committee that would, on an ongoing basis, review, update, and add to the district’s policies rather than just filling in the blanks on a boilerplate document.

Altamont might well have started with its already-existing "General Orders" for the police department, a manageable and readable 45 pages, last updated in 2000 and tailored to a small department. For example, the "chain of command" lists the mayor, followed by the village board, then the police chief, and finally the patrolman. The manual then defines the duties of each in a straightforward way.

The Guilderland committee — with fewer than a quorum of the school board — meets privately with the superintendent to hammer out each policy. The document is then presented to the board at a public meeting, where questions and comments are solicited. The board does not vote, though, until the next meeting.

The board members have plenty of time then to read and react. And the public, which follows school-board news through our newspaper or through watching cable broadcasts, can react, too. The board holds its discussions in public after the policy is presented and then, again, at the next meeting if there are further comments before the vote. Sometimes board views send the policy back to committee for further revision. The nine members of the Guilderland School Board have varying views and aren’t shy about expressing them.

What is finally adopted — to be followed by all in the district — is stronger for the public airing. The criticisms lead to worthwhile corrections. The sometimes clashing views lead to compromises that make for better, more informed, more relevant policy. And the public has a chance to participate in the process and to understand the policy.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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