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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 16, 2010
Mayor urges more “home rule” for Altamont
By Jo E. Prout
ALTAMONT Mayor James Gaughan said last week that the village board would continue to reinstate “home rule” as it navigates through the Civil Service system and restructures its police department.
Village attorney Michael Moore said that the board did “nothing wrong” on Aug. 3 when a quorum discussed the restructure in a private meeting that was not publicized. The state’s expert on the Open Meetings Law says it was illegal.
Gaughan said at the board’s September board meeting that the Civil Service system was “meritorious” when it was designed but that its requirements do not always fit a small village like Altamont.
Civil Service Law was established so that government jobs would be awarded on merit rather than favoritism.
“They don’t work,” Gaughan said. “We’ve got to fight, again, to get some control back. We are the end of the tail of the wagging dog downtown. We want to gain back local control of what we do.”
The village board, in a special meeting on Aug. 24, had voted unanimously to restructure its police department so that Anthony Salerno could stay on as its “team leader” in a police department with 11 part-time officers. Five years ago, Salerno had been appointed provisionally as public safety commissioner until he passed the required Civil Service exam. He chose not to take the exam, and therefore had to leave his post by Aug. 24.
Four men passed the exam; the top three did not respond to letters canvassing their interest. Rather than interviewing the fourth candidate, making a provisional appointment, or considering lists of police chiefs, the village board placed Gaughan in a supervisory position over the department, and kept Salerno on with a 50-percent pay-rate increase as a part-timer, meaning he did not have to pass an exam.
The discussion about the restructuring took place in an illegal meeting on Aug. 3 when Gaughan and the two members of a “Recruitment Committee” trustees Kerry Dineen and Christine Marshall met with the Albany County Civil Service Department to come up with the new police department structure.
“No decisions were made at that meeting,” Moore said last week of the Aug. 3 meeting. Moore said that Gaughan prepared a summary of the meeting for his “Mayor’s notes” column, published on the opinion page of The Enterprise.
The meeting was neither advertised nor open to the public, which violated the state’s Open Meetings Law in two ways, according to Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. Gaughan, Dineen, and Marshall constituted a quorum of the five-member village board, which, by law, requires that meetings be posted in advance and open to the public. Also, as explained by Freeman, “The committee itself is a public body covered by the Open Meetings Law, which means that the gathering should have been preceded by notice and held open to the public, unless there was a basis for going into executive session.”
When asked this week if a board could meet privately as long as it made no decisions, Freeman said, “It doesn’t matter.” He went on, “It was held 30 years ago” that board members cannot meet privately “even when there is no intent to take action.
“Clearly, there could have been no basis for holding an executive session,” Freeman said of the meeting with the Civil Service Department to discuss restructuring Altamont’s Police Department. “The focus would not have been on an individual, but on the function of the department.”
Many boards hold executive sessions, or closed meetings, under the guise of “personnel” issues, Freeman said, but the language under the Open Meetings Law is very precise. A board can only close a meeting to discuss medical, financial, or employment issues of a particular person or corporation, or to discuss dismissal, promotion, or removal of a particular person or corporation.
“The issue involves how a department should function. The focus would not be on any particular individual,” Freeman said, adding that his view was “an objective, expert opinion based on the language of the law.”
“I am convinced that the village board has done nothing wrong,” Moore told the village board at its Sept. 7 meeting. “There are, and should be, no legal consequences imposed on the village board.”
There is no mechanism for enforcing the Open Meetings Law unless someone brings a suit.
Moore did not address other violations of the Open Meetings Law that occurred during the Aug. 24 meeting when the board allowed Salerno to criticize a former board member but did not allow that trustee to defend himself or criticize Salerno. The Family Court Act was also violated at the Aug. 24 meeting when Salerno spoke by name of a youth’s sealed Family Court records.
Moore wasn’t present at the Aug. 24 meeting, and Gaughan said after the meeting that the village attorney hadn’t been consulted in the restructuring of the police department.
Moore said at the September board meeting that he spoke with the village’s insurance agent about the new structure. The “change will not in any way implicate…the village’s policy,” he said, “ ‘even if this change were to decrease the level of police protection in the village,’ ” Moore said, quoting the agent.
Moore said that the restructure might affect the premium the village pays for insurance, but not its coverage.
He also said that the change in the department does not place the mayor in the position of supervising himself.
“That is not a correct characterization of the situation,” Moore said. He quoted Section 4-400 of the state’s Village Law. That section outlines the duties of a mayor, including “to exercise supervision over the conduct of police…” and “to provide for the enforcement of all laws.”
Under the new Altamont police structure, Gaughan serves as supervisor of the department and is charged, as mayor, with supervising the department as a whole.
Another section of that same law, says that a village police department must have a chief or commissioner.
“There’s no consequences to the Aug. 3 meeting?” asked Trustee William Aylward, a former mayor, town supervisor, and current county legislator.
“It is my judgment, based on [Section 4-400] that no court of this state should impose” a penalty on the village, Moore said.
Trustee Dineen said that, as elected officials, she and her fellow board members are “given tools,” like an experienced village clerk or superintendent of public works.
“We do the best we can,” Dineen said. “We’re trying to do what people wanted.”
Dineen said that, when the quorum did not make a decision about the police department at the Aug. 3 meeting, she and Trustee Marshall decided that they needed to talk with experts.
“It was done for the right reasons,” she said.