Members of the New Paltz Town Board held its first meeting as the town’s Police Commission last Thursday. As Town Supervisor Neil Bettez and council member Julie Seyfert Lillis familiarized themselves with the process of acting in the secondary role as police commissioners, questions about the structure of the commission itself still linger.
Former Town Board members voted 3-0 on December 19, 2013 to disband the New Paltz Police Commission, effective January 31, 2014. Former supervisor Susan Zimet said at the time, “The police budget is the single largest expenditure in the town, yet under the commission structure, the oversight for the department is out of the hands of elected officials. There is a disconnect that exists because of an additional layer of management that has proven to be ineffective.”
At that time, there were accusations that the decision was political. Randall Leverette, who served as the Police Commission’s chairman, had been narrowly defeated in his bid to oust Zimet as supervisor of the town, and replacing the five citizens with the sitting Town Board members was suspect to his supporters. When asked if he felt the dissolution of the current commission was a political move, Leverette responded simply, “All of it is politics. It is horse-trading. It is what it is.”
Zimet denied the suggestion that political payback played a role in her decision. “As you know, there are some people in this town that will believe whatever they want — regardless of reality,” she said. “The election is over and behind us.”
Council member Jeff Logan had suggested dissolving the police commission in 2011, out of a concern that the board members were effectively abdicating their responsibility to oversee the largest part of the town budget by tasking commissioners to work with the police chief on the financial details.
Before the present form was agreed upon, Logan had also advanced the idea of designating the supervisor as the sole commissioner, and creating a citizen Police Advisory Committee to review complaints against officers and advise board members on how to act upon them. That idea was scrapped in favor of the present system, in which Town Board members meet once a month as the Police Commission to review police defensive actions, commendations and complaints. The latter are addressed entirely in executive session and details are never released to the public, although presumably information about individual officers could be redacted to protect their privacy. At the commission meeting last Thursday, Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi did just that with the defensive action reports, identifying neither the officers nor the citizens involved by name. Officers who were thanked by citizens or otherwise commended were identified.
Bettez has said that he’d like to revisit the structure of the commission, spurred in part by an incident involving council member Logan and former village trustee Ariana Basco on October 31. Logan called the police when he noticed some of his campaign signs — he ran for supervisor last fall — on the side of Basco’s home. The concern which Bettez raised at the time is that Logan, by serving effectively as the supervisor of any police officer by virtue of being a police commissioner, had a conflict of interest which might have placed any responding officers in a difficult position. Whether that conflict is real or not, the perception remains.
However, the supervisor is in no rush to make changes without thoroughly understanding the issues. He acknowledged Thursday that it was his first Police Commission meeting since taking office and that Police Chief Joseph Snyder was not even present because he was on vacation. Snyder has told board members that he prefers the current model, because it improves communication and makes for a more efficient system.
Instead, Bettez said he wants to get more input from the chief and others about how to prevent problems that arose under the old model, such as supervisor Toni Hokanson accusing commissioners of micromanaging the department in 2011, while incorporating members of the public back into the process. He’s spoken to some individuals he’d like to serve on such a reconstituted commission, but no formal board discussion of the topic is likely to be scheduled so long as the chief is unavailable to weigh in.