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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 10, 2010

Has Salerno taken Civil Service exam required to be commissioner?

By Jo E. Prout

ALTAMONT — The village must hire a public safety commissioner from a list of eligible applicants who passed a recent Civil Service exam, but Anthony Salerno, who was appointed as Altamont’s commissioner in 2005, won’t say if he has taken the exam or not.

Mayor James Gaughan, who has direct authority over the commissioner position, said this week he won’t reveal if Salerno has taken the exam either.

Gaughan said that Salerno is doing a fine job, and that the position should be exempt from a Civil Service exam.

“I am so pleased that he has been with us for the last five years,” Gaughan told The Enterprise. “He’s taken a police force and moved it to a highly professional level. Everybody is certified.” Because of Salerno’s record keeping, the force is a “well-working machine,” Gaughan said.

Harvey Vlahos, a former village trustee who has run against Gaughan in the last two mayoral elections, asked the board at its meeting last week whether or not Salerno had taken the exam. Board members would not comment, but shook their heads no.

“To not know if he’s taken it and to have to fill a position strikes me as a little unusual, I guess,” Vlahos told The Enterprise. “I was a little puzzled about the answer there.”

Vlahos said that he received an e-mail that listed the exam date and Salerno’s name, and that the e-mail prompted his questions to the board.

“If [Salerno] didn’t take it, there needs to be a search for a new police commissioner. If he didn’t take it, it automatically disqualifies him,” Vlahos said.

Salerno would not comment to The Enterprise this week, and would not confirm or deny whether he took the exam.

Trustee Christine Marshall, who is retired from the state Department of Civil Service, told The Enterprise this week that she did not know if Salerno had taken the exam. Asked if the board had asked Salerno to take the exam because of the new requirement, Marshall said, “We certainly advised him that the exam was going to be held, and it would be a good idea for him to take the exam.”

“My ethical standards are that you do not tell who takes the exam,” Gaughan said. He said that a standard practice in hiring is to honor confidentiality.

Asked if confidentiality held for a publicly appointed position, Gaughan said, “It’s an ethics issue for me, and a privacy issue.”

Not exempt

Gaughan said that the commissioner position should be exempt from a Civil Service exam.

“I do believe it is not necessary,” he said. “We did seek to have the position classified as an exempt position. Civil Service rejected the petition [last year]. I think that it should be an exempt position.”

Gaughan said that the position is confidential, with policy-level decision-making.

“The board should have some leeway in choosing a [police force] leader,” Gaughan said.

David Walker, the deputy personnel officer for Albany County’s Civil Service department, said that Salerno’s appointment was provisional and, to keep his job, he would have to take the Civil Service exam, pass it, and “be reachable.”

Hannah Rothenberg, a personnel tabulator for the same department, explained what being reachable means: “You look at the list and count down three names,” she said. “The third person’s score is the base. Anybody tied with or above that score is reachable.”

Asked how long someone in a provisional position could serve without taking a required exam, Walker said, “Civil Service Law calls for nine months.” He added that the nine-month limit isn’t always fair since sometimes it can take longer than that to create an exam.

In Salerno’s case, Walker said, the New York State Civil Service Commission denied the request to make the public safety commissioner’s post in Altamont non-competitive; if the post were made non-competitive, Salerno would not have had to pass an exam. Rothenberg said that the denial was made on July 15, 2009.

“That meant we had to order the exam,” said Walker. He added that this was the first time Albany County had ever held an exam for a public safety commissioner. The other towns and villages in the county with police departments have police chiefs instead.

“The exam is the same as the police chief exam,” said Rothenberg.

The list of those who took the exam is not yet established, said Walker; it will show only those who passed the exam. The list will be made public three business days after it has been established, Walker said.

If Salerno did not take the exam, he would have to be removed from his post, Walker said. If he took the exam and failed it, since this was his first time, if there are just two or fewer people on the list, Salerno could remain provisionally in his post until the next time the exam is given — probably in 2011.

If Salerno failed the exam a second time, Walker said, he would have to be removed from his post.


Salerno was appointed to the $40,500-per-year full-time position five years ago, after a village committee headed by Gaughan, before he was elected mayor, reviewed the police force and recommended changes to the village board.

A survey created by the committee had found that residents and business owners wanted fewer part-time officers — Altamont had more than 16 at the time for a village of about 1,800; more community policing; and a police commissioner able to make arrests.

Vlahos, then a trustee, helped coordinated the search for the new police commissioner; Salerno was chosen from a pool of 14 applicants.

Salerno took the commissioner’s post while concurrently working for the Albany Police, a job he had held then for almost 20 years. At that time, he lived in the village and had worked as a barber in a shop on the outskirts of Altamont near Guilderland Center.

Village residency was a key criterion set by the board when it established the position description. The village clerk, Patricia Blackwood, said this week that residency was no longer a requirement.

Gaughan said this week that Salerno does not live in the village. He said the residency requirement was changed in 2005 to expand the pool of applicants.

The trustees in 2005 required the candidates to be certified police officers. The commissioner before Salerno, Robert Coleman, who had been an Albany policeman, did not meet the criteria and was not among the three finalists for the position.

 The village board first created the commissioner’s post in the 1990s. Thomas Pollard, who was groomed to be police chief when George Pratt retired, was unable to pass the Civil Service exam. He took the test in 1993, 1994, and 1995; he came closest to passing in 1994, with a grade of 68, two points shy of the required score.

Pollard said at the time that the exam of multiple-choice questions, primarily about specific charges in the law, were similar to those asked of police chiefs in large city departments. “It’s not designed for a real small department,” he said. Pollard said that, in doing his job, beyond knowing what law books to look in he often relied on the expertise of lawyers.

Rich Ciprioni, who in 1995 was the municipal personnel consultant with the state’s Department of Civil Service, said at the time that the exam of 90 questions given to Pollard was designed for small departments and covered six different areas — enforcement methods, preparing and understanding written materials, supervision, and administration as well as knowledge of state laws.

He explained that the reason for the Civil Service law is to see that promotion is made “by merit and fitness, to be ascertained by examination.”

Ciprioni also cautioned that, if Altamont’s board wanted to create a new post, it would have to change the responsibilities and duties, not just change the name from police chief to commissioner.

After review of the police department by a citizens’ committee, the village board, led by Mayor Paul DeSarbo, decided to replace the post of police chief with that of commissioner of public safety.

Asked this week why the exam had not been required in the more than a decade that Altamont has had the commissioner’s post, Rothenberg said, “We cannot say why it wasn’t tested.”

New requirements

Marshall said this week that the commissioner position “had never been formally placed outside the ‘competitive’ class.” She said that those who pass the exam and meet any requirements for the position are then placed on an “eligible” list and are able to compete for the job.

“It would make no sense for us to look for someone else,” Marshall told The Enterprise. “We are bound now, since the commissioner position has been determined to be in the competitive class, to follow the Civil Service procedures in filling the job on a permanent basis. We, at this point, have to wait and see what happens as a result of the exam.”

According to the Albany County Department of Civil Service, results from exams are not available for up to eight weeks. David Ernst, the director of public information with the state DCS, said that, because the results of the exam are not out, he cannot release names of those who took it.

Marshall said that she had no idea when a list of eligible people might be established.

“It might not be this exam. Maybe no one passed,” she said. Once a list of those who passed the exam and who meet the job requirements is created, Marshall said, the village will have two months to fill the position, or to leave it unfilled.

“That’s when the clock starts,” she said.

“We have not been looking for someone else. We’re very happy with Mr. Salerno’s performance,” Marshall said. Saying that she spoke for the board, she said, “Our first choice would be to keep him in the position.”

“We are following the Civil Service procedure. We don’t know what the final results are going to be,” Marshall said.

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