What most people believed to be an exemplary career came to a controversial climax when Kingston fire chief Rick Salzmann put in his retirement papers last week. Hours later, Mayor Shayne Gallo confirmed rumors he had turned over Salzmann’s payroll records and other job-related documents to the district attorney. Obviously, the mayor suspects criminal behavior but is treading carefully, hedging his comments, refusing to make public the accusatory instruments.
For Gallo, barely three weeks into his first term, the timing couldn’t have been better. First impressions count — recall County Executive Mike Hein firing his health commissioner for alleged administrative incompetence six months into his first term. Hein, in one stump speech after another, has been riding that one ever since.
That Gallo would take down the fire chief — arguably one of City Hall’s leading lights, the guy in the starched white shirt, pursuer of recalcitrant slumlords, vociferous advocate for his life-saving department, whistle-blower on doughnut-feasting railroaders, scion of a family of long and proud tradition — has to send an unmistakable signal. Hold on to your collective keesters, City Hall. There’s a new sheriff in town.
While far too many people consider an accusation akin to conviction, at this point the former fire chief is guilty of nothing. Surely, there were other, more likely targets. Legions of admirers, myself among them, were flabbergasted at this turn of events.
Speculation immediately turned to what he may have done (if anything) and why. With 37 years in the system and an $80,000 salary, Salzmann, 58, could have drawn a $60,000 pension (estimated) for the rest of his life, with free health insurance. A comfortable retirement is one thing, jeopardizing one’s reputation another. Why mess with something like that?
The “how,” if that’s what happened, isn’t that hard to figure out. In a government culture of entitlement where nobody paid much attention, particularly in the last few years, the mindset was to grab everything you can. In the case of top-tier salaried officials, this meant banking sick days, vacation and compensation (“comp”) time. While reduced in recent years, the rule of thumb was that officials, and plenty of grunts, left with roughly a year’s salary.
And it’s all perfectly legal, in some cases written into contracts signed by our elected officials. The abuses occur when someone claims time they didn’t earn — incidentally, logged at their highest (exit) rate of pay. It brings a whole new meaning to the term “public service.”
In the normal course of things, suspected skullduggery in government is either ignored or covered up. Should the powers-that-be discern imminent disclosure — “it’s on the street” can set off a feeding frenzy — the suspected miscreant is called in. If the offenses prove minor (as in only a “little” pregnant) a good wrist-slapping will suffice. If worse, the choices are retirement or resignation. Rarely is anyone fired. Glowing press releases are issued, and that is the end of that.
While my collective sources are right only 99 percent of the time, to coin a phrase, indications are that some sections of that well-traditional path were pursued in the Salzmann saga. Following an investigation by the new police chief and the city comptroller, three well-practiced attorneys (the mayor, Corporation Counsel Andy Zweben and his assistant Dan Gartenstein) came to a decision to pursue a criminal investigation.
This is noteworthy in several respects. This Kingston trio, Zweben in particular, are political lawyers. For them to make this judgment against one of the highest-ranking, most-respected department heads in city government, indicates “very serious stuff,” Gallo told me. It’s also risky. Should Salzmann be exonerated — and District Attorney Holley Carnright is no headhunter when it comes to municipal malfeasance — Kingston’s new sheriff will find himself the target.