By KATIE HOOS
The Rye City Council is considering having the final say in the hiring and firing of the city’s police commissioner, doing away with a duty that has been the sole responsibility of the city manager for decades.
Currently, the city manager appoints all department heads and all other city employees, and is not required to seek the approval of the City Council or mayor.
The City Council is responsible for hiring the city
manager and city attorney.
A proposed amendment to the city charter would require the city manager to consult and receive approval from the city’s legislative body for decisions regarding the appointment, suspension and removal of the police commissioner.
“The police commissioner is such a high profile and important position in the city; the mayor and City Council ought to have some say in the decision-making,” Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, said.
Sack, who said he brought the issue to light during his mayoral campaign last year, believes the amendment would “formalize a good practice” and is supported by the majority of the current City Council.
“The city manager is still the person selecting the police commissioner,” he said. “We’re just saying the city manager should go to the council and get advice and consent on it before it becomes final.”
Interim City Manager Frank Culross, who took over for Scott Pickup after Pickup’s resignation on April 23, said he would have no problem consulting the City Council during the hiring process, but is concerned about its involvement during disciplinary cases.
“My issue is not of the hiring, but in the unfortunate case of a discharge,” Culross said. “Trying to have eight people involved in a disciplinary hearing might be more confusing for everybody. My observation is the system has worked well for however many years it has been in place, but if that’s the preference of the City Council, that would be fine.”
Culross said he has suggested the council modify the proposal’s language with regard to disciplinary action.
Although the impetus for the proposal remains unclear, sources say Culross’ hiring of Bill Pease to serve as police commissioner may have been a factor.
During the city’s most recent police commissioner hiring process, Culross said the City Council played a minor role in the selection of Pease, a former Rye Police Commissioner who come out of retirement to take over soon after William Connors stepped down from the role in January. Pease succeeded Lt. Robert Falk, who was serving as commissioner on an interim basis.
“I discussed it with the City Council before [Pease] was hired, but the council was not involved in the decision-making,” Culross said. “As I recall, the language in the city code currently provides that the City Council set the criteria that the [police] commissioner has to meet, but does not call for specific consultation before hiring.”
According to Sack, Culross merely told the City Council that he was going to hire Pease.
Pease, who worked with Culross as a Rye police sergeant when Culross became city manager for the first time in 1978, served as police commissioner from March 1993 to December 1999.
Critics of Sack’s proposal say the move would further empower the City Council while politicizing the police commissioner position.
Former Mayor Douglas French, a Republican, said he believes the decision to change the charter is not up to the City Council, but rather one that should be made by public referendum.
French said the issue of changing the city charter without a public vote is a major concern.
“The city charter works for the people and they should decide to change it, not the City Council,” French said.
From a policy standpoint, French said the proposal goes against the nature of how Rye government functions.
“Rye is set up as a city manager government for a reason, to take politics out of decision-making and put that decision-making in the hands of professionals,” he said. “The mayor and City Council set policy. We have a strong city manager for a reason and a weak mayor who sets policy and does not make administrative decisions for a reason. To now have the council making these decisions, you’re changing the way Rye’s been governed for over 50 years and that’s a much larger discussion.”
In response to French’s comments, Sack said, “Mr. French is a little bit misguided by labeling our form of government as a weak mayor system. That may have been his view when he held office‑and I certainly respect the rightful role of our city manager under the charter‑however, there is a correct and proper role for the mayor and council to play in providing appropriate oversight.”
While the City Council may be looking toward changing the future of police commissioner-related determinations, the city has already experienced controversy during a search for the city’s top cop.
Last December, the police commissioner search was met with concern over an apparent conflict of interest between Pickup and his involvement with the agency he hired to lead the search, International City/County Management Association. At the time, Pickup was a member of the ICMA and a board member for its affiliate, the New York State City/County Management Association, and did not disclose his association to the City Council prior to signing a $40,000 consulting contract with ICMA.
While it was determined Pickup’s involvement on the board did not create a conflict of interest because there is no financial association between ICMA and its state counterpart, the non-disclosure left a sour taste in the mouths of some.
A public hearing on the proposed change to the city charter will be held at the Sept. 10 City Council meeting.
Councilwoman Laura Brett, a Republican, declined comment and Councilwoman Julie Killian, a Republican, could not be reached for comment as of press time.