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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 19, 2010

Salerno stays on?

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — When Anthony Salerno’s name didn’t appear on the list of those who had passed the required Civil Service exam for public safety commissioner, the village had 60 days to find his replacement.

The deadline is Tuesday, Aug. 24.

The village board will meet the evening of Aug. 24 to vote on a novel plan, which Mayor James Gaughan says would restructure the department — currently made up of a full-time commissioner and nine part-time officers — so that all 10 of them, including Salerno, are part-timers.

Asked if Salerno would still be in a supervisory role, Gaughan was adamant in saying that he would not. The mayor himself would supervise the department.

“I’m at the police department almost every day,” he said. “I believe in community policing. My belief is that the residents of the municipality have needs, and look towards the public safety department as a support in dealing with all of their problems. Not only for addressing crime — God forbid we have that here — but to make people feel safe and see that our youth are taken care of.” He also said, “We offer support for the families and the problems they face. It’s the subterranean work that’s really the important work.”

If Salerno works for the village in a part-time capacity, he is not required to pass a Civil Service exam, according to Michael Cummings, the director of the Albany County Department of Civil Service.

Asked if anyone else would be interviewed to fill the new part-time post, Gaughan said no.

Asked how long Salerno will stay, Gaughan said, “It’s hard to say how long.”

Canvassing the list

Salerno, who was hired by the village in 2005 in a probationary appointment, was required to take the Civil Service exam for public safety commissioner, which matches the police chief exam, in order to keep his job.

The matter came to light at the June 1 village board meeting when the board was asked if Salerno had taken the required May exam; no one gave an answer.

Afterward, Trustee Christine Marshall, saying she spoke for the board, told The Enterprise, “We have not been looking for someone else. We’re very happy with Mr. Salerno’s performance.” When The Enterprise asked Salerno if he had taken the exam, he refused to answer and threatened legal action against the newspaper if it wrote about it.

After Salerno’s name did not appear on the list of those who passed the exam, he told the board and a group of supporters at the July 6 meeting that he had already planned to retire. “I did not take the Civil Service exam for that reason,” he said.

Four men were listed as passing the exam.

The village canvassed the list, as required by law, sending a letter to each of the four candidates, said Gaughan. The letter described the post as a “full-time 40 hour a week management position with an annual salary of $40,000,” and outlined the job duties.

The only candidate who responded, said Gaughan, was William Riley. He is a captain with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department and could not be reached for comment before press time.

Although Riley was interested in the post, he is not being interviewed for the job, said Gaughan.  “This is no reflection on the candidate,” Gaughan said. “The more important thing is looking at the entire structure.”

Gaughan said he had not heard back from the other three candidates, whose names were ahead of Riley’s on the list.

“There is no requirement that candidates on a list be sent a certified letter,” said David Ernst, spokesman for the New York State Department of Civil Service. “They must respond to a canvass within four days or they are deemed to have declined.”

Cummings said that candidates, particularly police officers nearing retirement, will take such exams to practice and improve their scores with no intention of accepting the job. Gaughan surmised that the $40,000 Altamont salary for the post was a “disincentive” along with distant location.

The only one of the four candidates that The Enterprise was able to reach, since the county wouldn’t divulge their addresses, was Kevin McKeon, a sergeant with the Suffolk County Police Department. He said the salary and location were not an issue.

“My biggest dream is to get out of the Long Island area and re-locate upstate,” he said. McKeon didn’t answer the letter from Altamont, he said because, “My wife wants to wait until my youngest reaches maturity…It’s causing strife at home.”

An eligible list containing four names where the top three candidates have declined or failed to respond is no longer a mandatory list that a municipality is bound to draw from, Ernst said.

Asked if Altamont could expand its candidate pool by drawing from those who had passed the police chiefs’ test, since the exams are the same, he said, “A municipality could discuss with the county the possibility of drawing candidates from another list created from an appropriate exam. Police chief and public safety commissioner titles do use the same exam.”

How scarce are candidates for commissioner?

Mayor Gaughan and the two trustees who make up the village board’s recruitment committee, Kerry Dineen and Marshall — a quorum of the five-member board — met with Cummings on Aug. 3.

Cummings related his view of the mayor’s proposal to The Enterprise this week: “I got the impression from what he was saying that Mr. Salerno is staying on primarily as a means of being a bridge to whatever happens next and I imagine there might be yet another solicitation or exam that will be given to see if another pool can develop…I wouldn’t want it to go too long before another attempt is made.”

Cummings also said, “The mayor could appoint someone to the position provisionally as I believe he did previously with Mr. Salerno.”

The mayor, however, views the plan, if it is adopted by the board on Tuesday, as a way of not having to find a new commissioner for the department.

He writes in his “Mayor’s notes” column in this week’s Enterprise and spoke with Cummings about the efforts the village made last year so that a waiver could be acquired to allow Salerno to continue as Altamont’s commissioner while he was drawing a pension from his two decades as an Albany Police officer.

Salerno was granted the 211 waiver and was able to collect his pension from Albany — $45,082.56 a year — while he worked for Altamont.

Altamont’s recruitment announcement was listed for several weeks on the New York State Organization of Chiefs of Police website, the mayor reports, as well as being posted at the Altamont Police Department where the part-time officers were informed of the recruitment.

The mayor also writes in his column, “Although the current part-time staff have experience with basic patrol duties, they do not have adequate experience in management or supervision.”

Kenneth Runion, Guilderland’s supervisor, said that, when the town was seeking a police chief several years ago, it, too, advertised in police publications but also advertised on its own website and in two local newspapers, the Times Union and The Altamont Enterprise. “It’s our official newspaper so we’re required to post something there,” Runion said.

“We increased the pool by opening it up to sitting police chiefs as well as those who passed the tests,” said Runion. The town board seriously considered a dozen candidates, he said.

When Salerno was hired as public safety commissioner five years ago, the village received 14 applications for the post. Dineen and Harvey Vlahos, who was then a trustee, interviewed a dozen candidates. Three finalists were considered by the full board.


Gaughan, in his column this week, quotes Cummings as saying, “Policing in a small village creates other problems which the mayor has under review.”

Asked this week to explain what these problems are, Cummings told The Enterprise, “You obviously don’t have big crime problems but you have part-time staff …It’s difficult to hire them, train them, recruit them, although that’s aided somewhat by the fact that most of them have other jobs.” He went on to say that the mayor “would know what mix of authority, responsibility, structure, control, what things were needed to make the workforce…work, and, if he is dealt a hand that he has that he wants to retain some experienced leadership.”

Gaughan and Dineen, along with Trustee Dean Whalen, had all — before they were elected to office —served on a citizens’ police review committee that, in the wake of community complaints about the police, found several problems with the village department. A survey of residents and business owners called for fewer part-time officers, more community policing, and a police commissioner who would be able to make arrests.

“There were more than 20 part-timers with no discipline, no training,” said Gaughan of the police department before he was elected. “Since then, it’s been a really good group of trained people. If you came into the police department in 2005 and you opened a file drawer, there was nothing in there of any order or organization,” he said. “It was a problem beyond a problem.”

Altamont, a village of roughly 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.

Vacant post

Gaughan has said that the commissioner post should be exempt from a Civil Service exam. “I do believe it is not necessary,” he said earlier.

The village sought to have the post exempt, so that no exam would be required.

The New York State Civil Service Commission denied the request on July 15, 2009, finding a “lack of compelling evidence” and citing the “clear practicability” of the examination.

The mayor said yesterday that all of Altamont’s police leaders have been provisional, pending an exam, thus underscoring the need to restructure the department.

However, George Pratt, who served as Altamont’s police chief from 1972 to 1992, passed the Civil Service exam for police chief in 1972. Tom Pollard was groomed to be his successor, but, when he failed to pass the police chief exam three times in the 1990s, the board, under then-Mayor Kenneth Runion, made Pollard an officer-in-charge.

The following administration, under Mayor Paul DeSarbo, used the title public safety commissioner in hiring Robert Coleman. “Coleman held no certification as a police officer,” said Gaughan. He could serve as a public safety commissioner, which is an administrative position, usually used for agencies larger than Altamont’s department. Altamont is the only municipality in Albany County to have a public safety commissioner; the others with police forces have police chiefs.

“The structure of the department doesn’t seem to be working well,” said Gaughan, explaining why the village is not considering Captain Riley or anyone else for the vacant post.

There is no requirement to fill the post. “Any position can remain unfilled,” said Ernst.

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