Police Commissioner Position Sparks Political Debate in Southampton
By Stephen J. Kotz
A political brushfire broke out last week when Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman suggested a code change that could have made him the town’s sole police commissioner over the objections of Councilwoman Christine Scalera, who took the position in the absence of any change in the code, the entire town board would fill that role.
But after a discussion on Thursday that was at times contentious, board members seemed to be on the way toward a compromise.
The issue arose when Mr. Schneiderman said he had learned that in 2006 the town board created the position of police commissioner and assigned many administrative duties to it. Under that proposal, the police chief would report to the police commissioner.
The move came at a time when the town board was regularly butting heads with then Police Chief James Overton over his management of the department.
In 2007, the town sought to expand the commissioner’s authority to include hiring and firing employees, but that change was rejected by voters in a referendum. Despite the referendum’s defeat, the unfilled police commissioner position remained on the books.
With a new police chief, Steven Skrynecki, about to take office, Mr. Schneiderman said he wanted to clean up the language in the code by reducing some of the duties given to the police commissioner and assigning that position to the town supervisor if nobody else had been appointed to the role.
But when a notice of public hearing for that included on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, Councilman Scalera took exception, suggesting the supervisor was trying to expand his authority. “As we are right now, we sit as five commissioners who the chief of police reports to,” she told the board.
“I’m not looking for any additional powers for the town supervisor,” Mr. Schneiderman responded. “I’m just looking for a clear chain of command.”
The supervisor said it was his understanding that if the town board wanted to designate its members as a five-member board of police commissioners, it would require a referendum, but both Ms. Scalera and town attorney Kathleen Murray said that was not the case.
Councilman John Bouvier backed Mr. Schneiderman, saying he believed in emergencies it was important to have the police chief report to the town supervisor.
Ms. Scalera responded that should be obvious. “If an immediate decision needs to be made, our chief of police cannot be charged with having to call our supervisor, Councilman Bouvier, Councilwoman Scalera, Councilwoman Lofsted, and Councilman Glinka,” she said. “That’s just not a practical solution.”
“I’m trying to understand what you are objecting to,” replied Mr. Bouvier.
Ms. Scalera pressed on, saying if the supervisor were made sole commissioner, other board members would be isolated from helping oversee the department.
“I would never want any of you to feel you did not have access” to the police chief, Mr. Schneiderman said.
With an understanding that the supervisor should be the point person for communications with the chief, Mr. Schneiderman said he would consider further amending the change in the code.
“If you sat down with me, we could have worded this,” Ms. Scalera said.
“That’s the purpose of a work session,” replied Mr. Bouvier.
During Thursday’s work session, Supervisor Schneiderman also said that progress continues to be made on efforts to expand Long Island Rail Road service for those commuting to and from the East End.
The supervisor said he had recently met with representatives of the railroad, who have already promised an additional eastbound morning train and would like to add another one. There are logistical concerns about adding an additional train, he said, because the East End only has one track serving both directions.
Mr. Schneiderman added that the proposed service upgrades may not be completed until 2019. Last year, when Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said he had been working on increased service, a 2018 start date was envisioned.
A problem remains in providing additional westbound service in the afternoons, especially in the summer, Mr. Schneiderman told the board, because the eastbound Cannonball express train uses the track. He suggested there might be way to set up a westbound bus service on Friday afternoons.
Acknowledging that westbound traffic is also heavy as workers head home, Mr. Schneiderman said perhaps the roads could be striped or otherwise marked to allow a bus to run down the middle of Route 27 or on the shoulder, especially in congested areas like Bridgehampton and Water Mill.
That idea did not sit well with Councilwoman Christine Scalera. “You’re scaring me,” she said after the supervisor made the suggestion.
Southampton could join a growing number of communities across the country with
bike sharing systems if a proposal pitched to the town board by a member of its sustainability committee takes off.
On Thursday, Nick Palumbo was joined by Rosemary Macali, the manager of Transit Solutions, in a presentation to the town board about the possibility of bringing such a system into town. The two are co-chairs of the sustainable transportation committee of the U.S. Green Buildings Council — Long Island chapter.
Mr. Palumbo told the board not only are bike sharing programs sprouting in major cities like New York, but they are also becoming common in smaller cities cross the state including Buffalo and Albany.
“We are seeing models that could potentially be used for Long Island,” said Ms. Macali.