Despite a host of civil service protections that make it difficult to oust a police chief from his post, speculation about an easier way for the Southampton Town Board to get rid of the town’s top cop, if members desired, surfaced in Town Hall last week.
Southampton Town Police Chief William Wilson Jr. has been on the job for less than a year, but there have reportedly been at least two efforts to force him out: a buyout offer, and an alleged political maneuver offered to Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.
Under Civil Service Law, police chiefs can be removed only if they are found guilty of formal charges of misconduct or incompetence following a hearing. But under a decades-old provision of town code that allows the Town Board to force police officers who have worked 20 years or more to retire, the majority of the board could vote to force the chief to retire.
Ironically, the provision, which has been on the books but barely utilized for decades, was used by Ms. Throne-Holst last year to force some higher-ranking police officers out to help balance the budget.
Although he only took the helm of the Town Police on May 16, 2011, Chief Wilson has accumulated nearly 27 years of police service, having transferred to the town from the Southampton Village Police Department, where he started his law enforcement career and eventually became chief.
Ms. Throne-Holst, who said she wants to keep Chief Wilson on the job, said this week that talk about using the retirement provision prompted her to ask Vincent Toomey, the town’s labor attorney, on Friday whether such a move would be possible. She said he responded that the board could, in fact, use the provision to terminate the chief at will without proving cause. Mr. Toomey did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.
The supervisor said on Tuesday she does not know if the board would take this route. “Certainly not on my behalf, no,” she said. “I want to see him there.”
The rest of the board—Democrat Bridget Fleming, Republicans Chris Nuzzi and Christine Scalera, and Conservative Jim Malone—did not return calls this week.
Meanwhile, Patrolman’s Benevolent Association President Tim O’Flaherty said on Monday that his union has retained of the legal services of New York law firm Leeds, Morelli and Brown, which is preparing a lawsuit against the town and certain Town Board members to address what the union claims are civil rights violations concerning the police department—and one aspect of the suit involves the forced retirement policy, commonly referred to as the “20-and-out” provision.
“We think it’s discriminatory,” Officer O’Flaherty said. “That’s why we’re retaining counsel. We’re the only ones out of 500 agencies that have that, and it’s from 1971, so we’re going to address that and see where it takes us. It’s a state law. We’re the only department that has it. We don’t feel it’s fair, but it is the law, and we’re seeing what we can legally do to fight that.”
The suit will also address the town’s failure to respond within the time frame allowed by the union’s collective bargaining agreement to a union request for its members to view their personnel records, he said.
Last week, it was revealed that at least two attempts were made over the winter to get rid of Chief Wilson—one a financial incentive of an undisclosed amount offered to him should he leave, and the other involving an intermediary said to be acting on the GOP’s behalf suggesting to the supervisor a vote swap to reappoint then-Town Comptroller Tamara Wright in exchange for kicking out Chief Wilson. In addition, the Town Board has also not given the chief a contract.
Last spring, around the time of Chief Wilson’s hiring, the state repealed a section of the general municipal law that allowed for automatic pay-raise provisions for police chiefs. The change was a “mandate-relief initiative” that was part of a larger piece of legislation that enacted the 2-percent tax levy cap, according to State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., a former Southampton Town supervisor.
Under the old law, now repealed, whenever the highest officer in the police union—usually the senior-most officer beneath the chief—would get a pay raise, the chief would get a raise of the same dollar amount.
Ms. Throne-Holst said the timing of the repeal and the chief’s appointment led to some initial confusion about what the law change meant. “Giving him a contract, then, just got, a little bit, in my mind, only temporarily delayed, as we were sorting out the implications of what that repeal was,” she said. “In the meantime, close to a year has now passed, and he does not have a contract, and it’s certainly my hope that we move forward with that and he be given a contract like he should.”