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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 24, 2010

Did the commissioner take the required exam? Why is it a secret?

Illustration by Forest Byrd.

“Some civil service reform will come by necessity after the wearisome years of wasted Presidents have paved the way for it,” wrote President James A. Garfield in his diary shortly before he was assassinated.

Garfield was no reformer. The spoils system ruled in late 19th-Century America. When a new president took office, thousands of government workers were turned out of their jobs. During Garfield’s short tenure as president, he spent most of his efforts appointing political supporters to fill those jobs.

He was shot on July 2, 1881 by a disappointed job seeker, Charles Guiteau. Garfield had refused to appoint Guiteau as the United States consul to Paris.

The country was shocked into action. Civil service reform began.

On January 16, 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, requiring applicants to take Civil Service exams in order to be given certain jobs.

The federal government is the nation’s single largest employer and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of workers now fall under the Civil Service system.

The history of Civil Service in New York State is nearly as dramatic as the national story. The spoils system fueled powerful local and state political machines for decades. New York City’s Tammany was one of the most famous and most tenacious. It wasn’t until the New Deal legislation, coming out of the Great Depression, weakened the hold of the old-time district leaders on the poor — they could finally get government help as a right instead of a favor —and most municipal jobs became Civil Service jobs, that the power of the city machines were cut.

The system of having a test determine who is qualified for a job is a good one. Jobs should be awarded on merit, not favoritism. The current commissioner for the New York State Department of Civil Service, Nancy Groenwegen, says on the department’s website, “Our mission is to provide our State and local government agency partners innovative, cost-efficient human resources solutions for change and diversity based on fitness, merit and equal opportunity.”

Fitness, merit, and equal opportunity — those are at the heart of the Civil Service system.

But something in Altamont has gone badly awry.

Our reporter, Jo E. Prout, covered last month’s village board meeting where the trustees and mayor were asked if the village’s public safety commissioner had taken the Civil Service exam he is required to pass in order to hold his job. Board members would not comment but shook their heads no.

Even stranger, Anthony Salerno, who has held the post since 2005, would not confirm or deny if he had taken the exam. He said he would sue our newspaper for defamation of character if we wrote about it.

Why wouldn’t we write about it? Salerno’s job is a public post. The public pays his salary.  He is supposed to be a public servant, answerable to the public. Whether or not he took the exam required to keep his job is certainly a matter of public interest.

Equally puzzling, Mayor James Gaughan, who has direct authority over the commissioner position, won’t reveal if Salerno has taken the exam. Other board members have said they simply don’t know.

“My ethical standards,” Gaughan told Prout, “are that you do not tell who takes the exam.”

But the system is set up to be transparent. Those who pass a Civil Service exam are named along with their scores. Employers, like the Altamont board, then must chose from among those applicants who qualify.

Guilderland went through this process two years ago, choosing a new police chief. Board members and the supervisor gave reasonable answers when we reported on the selection process. No one threatened to sue us for writing about it. No one told us they couldn’t reveal whether the acting chief, who ultimately became the chief, had taken the exam. (She did, and we published that information.) Our articles shed light on the candidates and the process as board members had different views on the best candidate for the job.

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.”

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

The list of those who took and passed the May 8 exam will be established today, June 24, according to Mary Duryea, a spokeswoman for the Albany County executive’s office; it will be made public, as the law requires, three business days after it has been established, on Tuesday, June 29.

The mayor is pleased with Salerno’s work and says he has moved the police force to “a highly professional level.” Salerno, then, should then have no trouble keeping his job by passing the exam.

When Salerno was hired as Altamont’s public safety commissioner, no exam was required. The post had been created by the previous administration after a police chief could not pass the required exam.

A spokesman for the state’s Department of Civil Service, warned at the time 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.

According to Walker, the commissioner’s post is unique in Albany County; the other towns and villages with police departments have chiefs, not public safety commissioners.

Altamont, a village of about one square mile with about 1,800 residents, is also served by the Guilderland town police, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, and the New York State Troopers. According to New York’s criminal justice statistics, except for 2007 when larceny bumped the reported crime total up to 10, Altamont’s level of crime has remained essentially flat from 2004 to 2009, fluctuating between three and five crimes a year. According to two years of dispatch data that The Enterprise examined last year, half of Altamont’s police activity is for traffic stops. The next most frequent activity is answering complaints, followed by property checks for absent homeowners, and arriving at the scene when an ambulance is called. At that time, the Altamont force had one full-time post, the commissioner, and 10 part-time officers.

Gaughan says the commissioner post 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.”

The denial from the New York State Civil Service Commission was made on July 15, 2009. The commission is made up of the head of the state’s Department of Civil Service and two commissioners. Each serves a six-year term and, by law, not more than two can be adherents of the same political party. The commission found a “lack of compelling evidence” in support of the request the village had made. The commissioners also cited the “clear practicability” of the examination.

It seems their decision was a sound one as both Duryea and Rothenberg told us the exam that Salerno was required to take is identical to the one given to police chiefs. It includes questions on enforcement methods, preparing and understanding written materials, supervision, administration, and knowledge of state laws. These are topics in which the pubic would want its police chief or commissioner to be well versed.

Whether the mayor agrees with the decision or not, the village must adhere to it, and so must Salerno, if he wants to keep his job. We intend to follow the story and find out if his name is on the list come Tuesday. We’ll let the public know.

That’s essential for a system based on fitness, merit, and equal opportunity.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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