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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 1, 2010

Salerno loses post
Fails to pass or take Civil Service exam

By Jo E. Prout

ALTAMONT — Altamont will have to look for a new public safety commissioner.

The current commissioner, Anthony Salerno, appointed to the post in 2005, was not on the list, released Tuesday, of those who passed the required Civil Service exam.

This means Salerno either did not take the exam or took it and failed it. Neither he nor Altamont’s mayor would say if Salerno took the May 8 exam when The Enterprise asked after the question was raised at the June 1 village board meeting. Salerno threatened to sue the newspaper if it ran a story on the subject.

The village now has 60 days to exit Salerno from the position, the mayor said this week.

Board members agreed that, regardless of the exam results, the village should continue to retain a public commissioner, and to keep its police force in place.

The list

According to the Civil Service exam results obtained by The Enterprise on Tuesday, four men passed the exam; Matthew McCormick scored highest with a 99. Dennis Marcel received a score of 90, and Kevin McKeon received a score of 82.

David Walker, the deputy personnel officer for Albany County’s Civil Service Department, told The Enterprise earlier that Salerno would have to take the Civil Service exam, pass it, and “be reachable” to keep his job.

“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,” said Hannah Rothenberg, a personnel tabulator for the county Civil Service Department.

The list of those who took the exam and passed was established last Thursday, and made public Tuesday, three business days later.

Mayor James Gaughan, who oversees the commissioner position, would not say earlier this month if Salerno had taken the exam or not.

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

Since then, Gaughan wrote to The Enterprise and explained that he thought that exam results are a private matter. (See this edition’s opinion pages.)

The process

The village has changed the title of its police leader twice, from chief to officer-in-charge to public safety commissioner, to avoid Civil Service exam requirements when its officers could not, or chose not to, pass the exam.

“I have no intention of doing that,” Gaughan said. He said that, by the time he was elected, the commissioner position was already established.

“It was always provisional,” Gaughan said of the commissioner position.

Gaughan said last week that the commissioner post should be exempt from a Civil Service exam. The village sought to keep the position as a non-competitive post, but its request was denied by the state Civil Service Commission on July 15, 2009.

“The county personnel officer is the one who makes the decision to send [requests] off to the state,” said Mary Duryea, of the Albany County Executive’s office.

“There’s not a formal process for municipalities [to follow],” Duryea said of the way a village can request a change. In Altamont’s case, the paperwork for the request was signed by the village clerk. “If they make a case, for due diligence, we do send it off, because it’s ultimately the state’s decision,” Duryea said.

The village board did not discuss at a meeting the request to have the commissioner exempt from taking the exam, but “discussed it here and there,” according to Trustee Kerry Dineen, who agreed with the mayor that the position should be exempt.

If the discussions held by the village board were about the position, and not the person in the position, they “should have occurred during an open meeting,” said Robert Freeman, the executive director for the New York State Committee on Open Government.

“There is case law that deals with the notion of consensus,” he said.

If the decision to send the exemption request  “could only have been taken by the board of trustees…the board failed” to follow the Open Meetings Law “because a decision should have been made in public,” Freeman said.

According to the Open Meetings Law, such decisions may only be made at public meetings, rather than by private consensus, with either a physical convening of a quorum of the board, or a video conference in which people can observe one another, Freeman said.

Also, notice must have been given, and the public permitted to attend, he said.

The state Civil Service 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. Both Duryea and Rothenberg said the exam that Salerno was required to take is identical to the one given to police chiefs. The exam includes questions on enforcement methods, preparing and understanding written materials, supervision, administration, and knowledge of state laws

Sawyer said the public safety commissioner post is unique to Albany County; the other municipalities have police chiefs.

60 days

“We’re required to canvass those on the list to assess their interest in the job,” Gaughan said. He has asked Dineen to help, he said. The village will send a job description to the highest scorers and will interview them, if they are interested in the job, he said.

The position is full-time, with no overtime, he said. If no one from the list is interested, or if the village does not want to choose one of them after the interviews, Salerno will still need to leave the position at the end of 60 days, Gaughan said.

“If we get in that bind, I will seek advice from…Civil Service,” he said. Gaughan said that the process would probably take less than 60 days.

“We have not been looking for someone else,” Trustee Christine Marshall told The Enterprise last month. “We’re very happy with Mr. Salerno’s performance.” Saying that she spoke for the board, Marshall went on, “Our first choice would be to keep him in the position.”

No changes

Village trustees plan to keep the title of commissioner for the time being.

“I personally like ‘public commissioner,’ ” said Trustee Dean Whalen. “It’s more in the nature of Altamont. It’s a little friendlier.”

“To me, they’re kind of the same,” Gaughan said. “The real key issue is that it’s been deemed a competitive position. It was tested as a commissioner of public safety, and that’s how it was announced.”

Trustees also plan to keep the police force intact. 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. (For a full report on the data, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for May 7, 2009.)

The village of Voorheesville, in the neighboring town of New Scotland, does not have a village police force. New Scotland does not have a police force either. So Voorheesville, with about 2,800 residents, is served by just the Albany County Sheriff’s Department and the State Police.

“The public wants and appreciates a police department for the village of Altamont,” Gaughan said.

It was an issue in the last election, which Gaughan won handily. His opponent, Harvey Vlahos, had advocated cutting the force back to one full-time and a part-time officer as it had been under George Pratt. Vlahos was the person who asked the village board at its June 1 meeting if Salerno had taken the exam.

As a former trustee, he had co-chaired with Dineen the search committee for Salerno. Vlahos had received an e-mail that had listed the May 8 exam date and Salerno’s name, prompting him to ask the board if Salerno had taken the exam. His question was met with silence from the board.

Until then, there had been no public discussion of or announcement that an exam was required or that the village had requested the post be exempt. The Enterprise reported on those facts in a June 10 story.

Gaughan took umbrage at data reported previously, listing Altamont’s level of crime as between three and five crimes a year.

Plea deals in and out of court, and restrictions on reporting because of juvenile offenders skew the crime data from New York’s criminal justice statistics, which are “not a fair picture of what actually happens here,” Gaughan said.

No data is available for criminal mischief charges, which affect both the Altamont fairgrounds and local businesses, he said.

“We’ve taken care of and are dealing with it in Altamont,” Gaughan said.

Drug use and sales are an “ongoing problem” that is not included in the statistics, Gaughan said. Domestic situations that escalate to violent crimes are also not included, he said.

Whalen said that the village needs its police force.

“It’s evidenced by the nature of the town and why people want to live there. It’s safer,” he said.

“I believe it’s a deterrent,” Trustee William Aylward said about the police department. “We want to keep a low crime rate, which we have.”

Dineen said that a committee’s study of residents’ wishes several years ago helped the village make the decision to keep the police department. Dineen, Whalen, and Gaughan, who did not hold office at the time, all served on that committee and were subsequently elected to their current posts in an election where the running of the police department was a pivotal issue.

“We are a village that needs its own police force,” Dineen said.

Gaughan said that, if the department were eliminated, residents would miss it.

“The 24/7 would disappear,” he said. He said that town police could be farther away and take longer to arrive for an emergency.

“This is important, if you happen to be the person needing help,” he said.

“The commissioner has done a good job,” Aylward said about Salerno. “We’ve had five years in which he’s worked and given good service. I was particularly happy that he got the concerts [at the fairgrounds] under a semblance of real control. I gave him credit for that.”

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