A move to change the designation of the police commissioner position in Southampton Town—a post that appears in the town code but has never been officially filled—has sparked an argument among Town Board members over who should have the role.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman is expected to present a proposed code change at the next Town Board meeting that essentially would direct the supervisor to serve as police commissioner, unless the Town Board appointed someone else to the role.
However, Councilwoman Christine Scalera has maintained that all four Town Board members, in addition to the supervisor, currently serve as police commissioners, and that the move proposed by the supervisor would limit the powers of the rest of the board.
“He’s giving himself the appearance of authority by making himself the sole commissioner, but he’s not taking away responsibility vested in the Town Board, in respect to hiring and firing,” Councilwoman Scalera said. “He’s trying to get what he wants without the people having to weigh in on it.”
In 2006, a previous Town Board created the position of police commissioner to act as a chief administrative officer of the police department. However, after a 2007 referendum failed that would have given the position a full salary and powers to hire and fire employees, a commissioner was never officially appointed by the town.
In his arguments for the proposed code change, Mr. Schneiderman said he believed it was important to reinforce the existing chain of command, particularly in emergency situations, and that most of the changes proposed would actually move more day-to-day powers to incoming Police Chief Steven Skrynecki, who is expected to start by the end of April.
“I’m just trying to do some housekeeping here—I’m not looking for any additional power,” the supervisor said on Monday. “I’m not looking to take anything away from the Town Board.”
Ms. Scalera argued that the code already gives the supervisor the powers of the police commissioner in the event of a declared emergency, and that there was no reason for a code change that would make him the sole commissioner on a regular basis.
“It’s a very, very big deal,” she said. “This shouldn’t be vested in me—or him—or any singular person. There is no problem with the current structure. It is completely unnecessary.”
Mr. Schneiderman said with the incoming police chief, he thought now was a good time to clean up the code. He noted that he is considering changing his proposed amendment to entirely eliminate the police commissioner position from the code—which would mean the police chief would report directly to the supervisor.
He maintained that the proposed code change, as it stands, does not give the supervisor any additional power—a statement that Ms. Scalera has disputed.
“If the board doesn’t put anybody in the position, this is more about chain of command,” the supervisor said. “Who does the police chief report to if no one is serving as the role of commissioner?”
Deputy Town Attorney Kathleen Murray said state law authorizes a town to manage a police department once it’s established, and the Town Board is charged with hiring, firing, promoting and disciplining members of the department. But, she noted, the board has the option of establishing a police commission for those functions. Among its options, it could create a board of commissioners, or simply designate the supervisor to serve as the sole police commissioner.
Ms. Murray noted that the position of police commissioner was created in 2006, providing the position mostly administrative duties—but not including the hiring, firing, promoting and disciplining of officers, which remained the duties of the Town Board. A move a year later to expand the police commissioner’s duties was rejected by voters in a referendum. So the position remains in town code but has never been filled.
Mr. Schneiderman’s proposal, according to Ms. Murray, would reconsider the duties of a police commissioner, and note that in the absence of a formal appointment, the supervisor would serve in the role—though the Town Board retains all of the key powers.
She also noted that she is working on a separate proposal, to be considered by the board, which would eliminate the title of police commissioner entirely and simply say that the police chief shall report to the Town Board “through the town supervisor.”
The Town Board is expected to discuss the proposed code changes at a public hearing on April 25 at 6 p.m., in Southampton Town Hall.