Rough start in Chatham

YEARS AGO ACROSS the river a new supervisor won election promising to bring common sense and fiscal discipline to a town in need of both. His campaign pledges were more than political blah, blah, blah. The town was drowning in a soup of opinions cooked up by people who considered themselves experts on every topic under the sun, regardless of the facts. These great thinkers were eager to enlighten the new Town Board.

The supervisor’s initial town meeting went smoothly enough at first, as he presided in an amiable, low key fashion. But unable to remain silent a moment longer, one of the wise men began to babble. Swiftly, not saying a word, the supervisor picked up the gavel and brought it down on the table with a crack like a shotgun fired in an oil drum – so loud that everybody in the room jumped.

He savored the silence for a moment, then the supervisor calmly reminded the audience that the board had set aside parts of the meeting for public comment and everyone who wished to speak would have a turn. The great thinkers quickly grew impatient and left, taking their great thoughts with them. Town meetings got shorter and more productive.

 

There’s a fine line between theatrics and politics, a thought that came to mind at the first meeting last week of the new Chatham Village Board, where the audience was civil and the drama played out among board members.

The new mayor, Tom Curran, and Joanne DelRossi, his running mate and now a trustee, won decisive victories last month over incumbents. The mayor had momentum going into that meeting, something he needs as he tries to craft a budget that villagers like me can afford. But Mr. Curran, who has no previous experience as an elected official, was out maneuvered from the start by veteran trustees who do not share his desire for change.

On-the-job training happens all the time in politics, but as the sparring got rougher the new mayor retreated into a cocoon of tentative statements and tepid questions that emphasized he’d been caught in the headlights. And at that point something happened that shouldn’t have.

The village Police Department is the largest, most costly agency of village government. Just before the former mayor left office, the police chief publicly announced his decision to retire concurrent with the mayor’s departure. Then, at the last meeting of the old Village Board, the outgoing mayor introduced a motion to appoint the retiring full-time chief as a part-time chief. That was too much for the board, which wisely tabled the measure.

Much is made of the fact that the former mayor and the chief are brothers, but that’s common knowledge, and neither man’s integrity is at issue. The matter might have ended there except that last week the same proposal was reintroduced by veteran Trustees Dave Chapman and George Grant. Together with newly reelected Trustee Lael Locke, they adopted the chief’s proposal without any significant discussion and over the objections of the mayor and Trustee DelRossi, who urged delay until the village adopts its new budget.

The reason given by trustees supporting rehiring the chief was that his offer amounted to a good deal for the village and didn’t need to await the budget. But except for an emergency, every expenditure needs to be reviewed, especially when the budget deadline is only a few weeks away.

The village had a full-time chief for years, so why is it now in the best interests of public safety to have a part-time chief? And why the rush? When Mayor Curran requested a monthly police report, the deputy chief running the department said he had no data to give the board. He gave no indication that an emergency loomed. And no one said anything about the former chief setting a deadline on his offer.

Hiring an experienced, part-time chief of police might indeed make sense for the village. The chief was well within his rights to propose it. But the absence of meaningful discussion about the change and the refusal of the majority to consider it as part of the whole budget makes it clear this vote had nothing to do with what’s best for Chatham. Three trustees shunned their responsibility to the community for the sake of a naked power play. Some might call it just hardball politics or political theater. To me it looks like an abuse of power.

Comments are closed.