Once again, the issue of a three-member police commission to oversee the Southampton Town Police Department is on the agenda at Town Hall. The Town Board devoted the bulk of Friday’s work session to discuss the matter with Police Chief James Overton.
An exploratory committee put together by Town Supervisor Linda Kabot to examine the pros and cons of a commission discussed the issue with the board at length in June. At that time, the committee, comprised of former Town Councilman Dennis Suskind, a Democrat, former Town Councilman Jim Drew, a Conservative, and former Town Trustee Todd Granger, a Republican, recommended that the Town Board form the commission.
According to Vince Toomey, the town’s labor attorney and legal counsel for the ad hoc exploratory committee, New York State Law empowers the board to create such a commission without voter approval.
The three-member commission would be different from the proposal to establish the position of a police commissioner—an individual who would oversee the department—which did require voter approval. That’s because state law does not allow the Town Board to transfer its police powers to an individual without holding a referendum.
Transferring those powers to a commission, according to Deputy Supervisor Richard Blowes, would be no different than what the Town Board does now when it delegates authority to other advisory boards, such as the Zoning Board of Appeals.
But at Friday’s work session, the chief was no more in favor of the plan than he was in June when he said that a commission would represent only another layer of bureaucracy getting in the way of running the police force. “This is not necessary,” Chief Overton said Friday.
However, the chief said he was open to an idea posed by Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst, who suggested a compromise.
“We all know that one of the advantages of a commission is to delegate some of the workload, which is overwhelming,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “But the one of the disadvantages is the fear of a loss of control.”
The councilwoman suggested the board could tap a few outside individuals to work with it on police matters, while the board retained the power to oversee the department.
“Running the department is an enormous job, especially with deficits we’re facing,” she said. “The idea of having some outside perspective and expertise to work on budgets and management structures with the chief and the PBA and all levels of the force may be a good idea.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said she was fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of handing over the Town Board’s police powers to any one individual or group. “I feel it would be a shirking of our responsibility,” she said, adding that the she wasn’t elected to hand over such important authority to someone else.
She also said the town’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Association “should absolutely be represented on any group that we put together.” Pat Aube, the PBA president, said later, “I think Councilwoman Throne-Holst is right on the money—inclusion of the PBA is perfect idea, so labor issues could be represented to avoid conflicts in the future. Her idea would save taxpayer dollars … What Councilwoman Throne-Holst is talking about is what the PBA has been looking for all along, not just for the PBA but for the department as a whole.”
In February 2006, the Town Board established the position of a police commissioner. Voters overwhelmingly shot down the proposal in November 2007. Ms. Kabot, who was then a councilwoman, voted in favor of bringing the measure to the voters in 2006, but voted against filling the position when she went to the voting booth in 2007. In her view, the powers given to one individual were too broad, but those given to a three-member commission may be a sufficient alternative. Ms. Kabot has argued that as the town has grown the department needs greater oversight.
“Perhaps the voters didn’t understand what they were voting for at the time,” Ms. Kabot said Friday.
“People knew exactly what they voted down,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “There are a lot of examples where a commissioner has not worked well. It can become political and people were fearful of that.”