Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cleaning up town hall

Anyone who had occasion to visit the town clerk's office in the decades prior to December, 2011, will be impressed by how the office now looks.

In addition to the lack of clutter out front, the clerk now has her own office in the back, in a room I am told was "floor to ceiling" packed with boxes, clothing, and a stunning amount of rubbish.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Looking at the police

The New Paltz Police Commission and town police department have been in the news a bit lately.  The very existence of the commission hangs in the balance.

Let the board budget

Town board members are concerned that the commission hamstrings their ability to budget.  I don't know the specifics, but if the commission's recommended police budget can't be changed before it's incorporated into the annual town budget, that would be bad.  I don't want my elected officials to feel like they can blame volunteers if a budget decision proves unpopular.  We should do whatever it takes to give our elected representatives the confidence they need when they vote on any aspect of the town budget.

One area where nobody feels they're in control is that of contractual increases.  Multi-year contracts get negotiated, and future budgets must simply accept their terms.  So why do we do it this way?  Why not instead only negotiate one-year contracts, as part of the budgeting process?  Because it's too hard?  Or because that way you can sell a bill of goods down to your successors and they will be able to throw up their hands and say, "It's the best we could do, because our hands are tied by the terms of this three-year-old contract."  Is there anything in any law that would prevent our representatives from only negotiating single-year contracts, for police and all town employees?  Is there anything to prevent the town from passing a law requiring only single-year contracts?

What role for the commission?

As for the police commission, this is a body which could do real good in the community if it didn't have to focus on the budget.  I see real value in a group of citizen volunteers actively independently investigating allegations and publishing their findings.  I've heard (and suspect it's true) that most complaints against officers are baseless; I think it could only help if we could see how often this is the case.

When I interviewed for a seat on the commission a couple of years ago, one council member said to me, "I don't care how many guys they're beating up in an alley."  That official's priority was fiscal.  So I say let's take the budgeting side and give it to the people who don't care who is getting beaten up (if anyone is), and let our citizen volunteers focus on protecting both citizens and officers from poor treatment and misinformation.

The commission could do quite a bit to enhance police-community relations.  Officers have frequently told me that people know their "television rights" and not their "real rights."  So let's educate people on the difference.  Teach them how to behave during a police encounter, such that they exercise their rights without inadvertently escalating a situation.  I had the now-Lieutenant once tell me not to film an intoxicated individual.  I wasn't and didn't even have a camera, and frankly making a video of a guy puking on himself is pretty mean, but it's neither illegal nor is it unconstitutional.  I personally believe he give an inappropriate order; the chief and I disagree on that point.  The commission could preempt a lot of issues like these by clarifying departmental policies and educating the public about how officers will behave.  Education and transparency make for a safe community.

Cameras here and there

Commission members recently requested access to the car-cams which record police activity.  They are presently used for training purposes, not discipline, the chief told them.  What a missed opportunity!  Let's get these tapes into commission hands as soon as possible.  In fact, let's raise the transparency bar, and make all police video recordings available unless there is a reason not to.  Specifically, I would like to see a policy in which every video is posted online.  The chief and perhaps some others would be able to keep any specific footage from public view, but the individual who makes the call must be identified, along with the reason for the redaction.  That name and reason (which could be as simple as "evidence in an ongoing investigation") would be posted online in place of the video, and the footage would be reviewed annually to determine if the reason still held.

Sound like a lot of work?  Shouldn't be.  The officers know what goes down and could flag some encounters for review, and the rest would be posted automatically.

On a related note, police have recommended cameras in public places to help with safety and investigations.  I don't mind being constantly under observation if the police don't.  After all, as the owner of Jack's Deli remarked in this week's New Paltz Times, if you don't have anything to hide, there's no problem.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

So, it comes to this

It's never a surprise when a new executive accuses her predecessor of screwing up -- Terry Dungan trashed Jason West, Toni Hokanson pointed the finger at Don Wilen, and so on -- so the accusations supervisor Zimet is leveling against her predecessor will only be noticed by those few who have an ax to grind against one or the other of these two women (or, in a few special cases, individuals who can't stand either of them).

Whether or not Hokanson did wrong, most ordinary citizens won't care much; outside of the wine-sipping political pundit class, people in New Paltz spend more time living in the present than obsessing over minutiae. And that's a shame, because it means someone is getting away with something.

It could be Hokanson, Zimet, or both. The way the budget never got to a public hearing is unconscionable, and at the time the blame game was between the supervisor and the rest of the town council. Either incompetence by the lame duck or political aggrandizement by the council members who were sticking around probably contributed.

Of course, Zimet is a savvy politician and knows that she needs to get ahead of a story or she'll be blamed for the town's financial woes. Is she exaggerating when she talks about what a pickle the town is in?

Truth is a funny thing. Towards the end of the article linked above is an account of two town employees damaging the roof of the police headquarters, and the town paying the landlord for the damage. Hokanson said the employees went up there on their own, and that building owner C2G (her employer, now and then) was paid $2,500. Zimet claims her predecessor ordered the town employees onto the roof, and that the payment for damage was $14,000.

So who were the employees? I'd like to just ask them if they went up there on their own or not. And can we see the check written to C2G, please? It's either going to be for one amount or another, right? Unless the artificially complex financial system of our town government precludes simply writing a check, of course.

To do: FOIL the above information to see what's what. Truth shouldn't be that tough to sort out. If it is, we've got a problem, Houston.