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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 26, 2010


Commissioner exits, enters as team leader

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — After circumventing the Civil Service system, the village board, by unanimous vote, has given its former public safety commissioner, Anthony Salerno, a 50-percent pay-rate increase and asked him to stay on without having passed the required exam.

“Tony remains as the team leader of this department,” village Trustee Kerry Dineen told a small crowd gathered at a special meeting of the board on Tuesday night, the last night before Salerno would have to be removed from his position since he had failed to take the required Civil Service test in May.

“We have been told that Mr. Salerno will be a team leader, quote unquote, but all supervisory duties of the police department are now going to be the responsibility of the mayor,” Hannah Rothenberg, a personnel technician at Albany County’s department of Civil Service, said yesterday.

Asked what a team leader is, she and David Walker, the deputy personnel officer at the department, were unsure.  Rothenberg offered that perhaps “the more junior employees may look to them for advice, for, I won’t say supervision, because the supervision is going to be the mayor’s job now.”

Mayor James Gaughan will take on the duties that Salerno had performed as commissioner, Walker said.  The police department will now have 11 part-time officers, including Salerno.  Asked if Gaughan is qualified for the position, Rothenberg answered, “The mayor is an unclassified position and… we don’t have any say in the duties of a mayor.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Dineen, who helped hire Salerno five years ago and who chaired the board’s two-person Public Safety Commissioner Recruitment Committee — its other member was Trustee Christine Marshall — explained why the committee wanted to keep Salerno, although he chose not to take the exam because, he said, he had planned all along to retire.

“People like the set-up, the leadership, the team that we have,” Dineen said, explaining that the board was trying to maintain the current department, which Salerno was hired to lead in 2005 through a provisional appointment, pending his passage of the Civil Service exam.

The required May test for police commissioner yielded a pool of four candidates.  The top three scorers did not respond to letters sent by the village and the fourth, William Riley, a captain with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, expressed interest in the job.

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, according to David Ernst, a spokesman for the state Department of Civil Service.

When Altamont resident Paul Betancourt pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting that the village had options besides Salerno, Dineen responded that the village could recruit again, or interview one candidate, which she stressed is not a mandatory list, but the village likes what it already has.

Marshall agreed that there were other options, but they didn’t appeal.

In June, after it first came to public attention that Salerno needed to pass an exam to keep his job, Marshall said, “We have not been looking for someone else.  We’re very happy with Mr. Salerno’s performance.”

Salerno said at the board’s July meeting, after the list without his name was published, that he had been planning to retire, which is why he chose not to take the exam.  Several months earlier, he had applied for the chief’s position in the city of Albany’s police department, where he was a patrol officer for about 20 years. 

His résumé was one of about 50 that were initially submitted, said Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin.  Fewer than 10 applicants were interviewed from that pool, she said, and Salerno was not among them, largely because the city was looking for someone with “more supervisory experience” and more experience with unions and community policing.  In July, the city appointed Steven Krokoff, a veteran of the department, to the chief’s spot.

“The epitome”

“Tony represents… the epitome of what we believe is the community policing model,” Gaughan said yesterday of the primary reason the village board is committed to keeping Salerno. 

“I think I mentioned, and others on the board mentioned, the public expression of their belief in retaining him is the desired state both publicly and privately by citizens to us is part of our belief system.  I mean, we represent, I represent, the people who elected me and my sincere belief is that the community at large really appreciates and desires him to be there,” Gaughan said.  “That’s a clear message.”

Several residents who frequent village meetings in support of the mayor and his administration spoke favorably of Salerno on Tuesday and praised the board for developing a way to keep him.

Former Trustee Harvey Vlahos, who helped hire Salerno and who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the last election calling for a return to a two-person police department, questioned the board Tuesday about its handling of the department.  At one point, Salerno approached the microphone and became quite emotional before accusing Vlahos of trying to get a friend hired as an officer and asking Salerno to issue traffic tickets to certain people.  While speaking, Salerno turned to Trustee Dean Whalen, commanded Whalen to look him in the eye, and implied that Whalen knew of the situation.

Vlahos responded that officers had approached him in confidence while he was on the village board and he had spoken to Salerno about the issues that arose.  He was puzzled about the traffic tickets.

When asked what the next step in the process will be, Gaughan answered yesterday, “Well, we’re going to try to make a go of this unusual team structure.”

Salerno will still handle the scheduling and payroll for the department and he will recommend “specific assignments” to Gaughan, Dineen said in a prepared presentation that she gave on Tuesday about the new structure for the police department.

According to Walker, at the county’s Civil Service Department, once Salerno’s title is changed to be a part-time officer, the only duties he is allowed to perform are laid out in a list, detailing tasks like patrolling, checking on properties, making arrests, and directing traffic.

Salerno, who had been paid about $40,000 a year when he was working 40 hours a week as the commissioner, will now be paid $29,900 a year to work 20 hours a week as a part-time police officer.  His new salary is just shy of the state’s $30,000 cap on earnings allowed to those collecting a pension.

Restructuring?

“We have been assured that the department has been restructured,” Rothenberg said when asked about the duties for which Salerno will be responsible.

“I don’t know if you can categorize it as a restructuring,” said Rob Panasci, a lawyer in the firm of Young/Sommer, who works with the village’s attorney, Michael Moore.  Moore was unavailable for comment this week.

The village did not consult its lawyer when making its plan for the police department, Gaughan said.  “It was my belief that we did not have to, but we consulted extensively with the authority that I believe is the lawful authority — the Civil Service division of Albany County,” said Gaughan.

“The position of public safety commissioner hasn’t been… repealed,” Panasci stressed.

According to the state’s Village Law, “The board of trustees of a village may, by resolution, establish a police department in such village and appoint a chief of police and such personnel as may be needed.”

“The purpose of the 1985 amendment to section 8-800, which added the phrase ‘a chief of police,’ was to require village police departments to have a chief,” says an opinion from the office of the state comptroller.

A grandfather clause allows that a village that had established a police department without a chief prior to 1985 was exempt, although “a village which had the office of chief of police as of August 2, 1985, whether or not the position was filled, must retain the office so long as it continues to have a police department,” an opinion from the State’s Attorney General’s office quotes from an Appellate Division decision.

Altamont had the office of police chief prior to 1985; George Pratt served as Altamont’s chief from 1972 to 1992.  Altamont adopted the title of public safety commissioner a decade ago.

“They don’t have to have a police chief — they have to either have a police chief, a public safety commissioner, or a police commissioner,” Panasci said.

At this point, the village has nobody in that position.

“They do have the position of public safety commissioner… it’s vacant right now, but they do have that position,” Panasci said.

When Betancourt asked on Tuesday how long the department would function without having someone appointed to the commissioner’s position, Dineen answered, “We don’t know the time table.  Let’s wait and see.”

“I don’t know if attempts will be made to recruit for that position again,” Rothenberg said of Altamont’s commissioner’s post.  “As far as I know, they don’t have to,” Walker said of filling the position.

Asked if the “team” structure could function indefinitely, even for decades, Rothenberg said, “As long as they are complying with Civil Service rules and law, there is no reason it could not.”

“Under our jurisdiction,” Walker added, reiterating that the Civil Service department does not enforce other laws, like Village Law.  He concluded, “We wouldn’t cover that.”


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