OP-ED: Stipendgate, Part I

By FRANK GORDON
It was around 11 p.m. on Dec. 19. I had been sitting for three and a half hours in one of the more unusual Harrison Town Council meetings I had ever witnessed. Unusual, in part, because it was punctuated by no less than three half-hour intermissions—one while the council met privately in executive session, one to allow the town comptroller to reflect changes from that executive session to the preliminary 2014 town budget and one for the comptroller to regain her voice while she read aloud the changes to the scant few diehards remaining in the audience.

By law, the council was required to adopt the town’s final budget by midnight the next evening. This meeting would be the board’s last opportunity to make any desired changes to the preliminary budget, which had been distributed a month earlier.

Once the comptroller returned to the podium after regaining her voice, she continued to read into the record the final changes to the preliminary budget.

“Revenue, page J-4. Com-posting, account 1501, from $75,000, to $83,000, an increase of $8,000…” She soldiered on.

It was all I could do to stay awake, but I figured I had lasted that long, I might as well see the thing through to the end.

Then she said: “Salary Schedule K-5…Add stipend of $12,000 for police chief, from zero to $12,000, an increase of $12,000.”

Huh?

My jaw dropped. The issue of a stipend for the police chief had been addressed by the Town Council earlier in 2013. In early August, the council, meeting privately in executive session, approved an annual stipend of $18,000 for the police chief in addition to his regular salary on the grounds that, for several years, the police department had gone without a captain, causing the chief to assume extra duties. Later that month, the council, in an abrupt about-face, rescinded the stipend because, in the words of Mayor Ron Belmont: “upon further deliberation… a stipend is not appropriate at this time.”

Now, a mere four months later, the council has apparently changed its mind again by adopting at the eleventh hour a $12,000 annual stipend for the police chief.

The council’s actions with regard to a proposed stipend for the police chief raise many questions about the process and merits of the decision. In a series of two articles, I intend to first review the process by which the council made its decision, starting with its initial decision to approve a stipend on Aug., 1, 2013.

Was the council’s conduct not illegal, unethical or otherwise insufficiently transparent?

The second article will address the merits of the decision. Is the stipend warranted under the circumstances? At the risk of seeming inflammatory, I intend to call these articles Stipendgate, Parts I and II. Although my choice of title may give you some inkling as to my opinion on this matter, I will try to be as objective as possible.

First, some background.

In 2011, Anthony Marraccini was appointed police chief for the Town/Village of Harrison. Previously, he served as captain of the town’s police department. The role of captain has remained unfilled since Marraccini’s promotion. According to the Town Council, since being named chief, Marraccini has continued to perform the duties and responsibilities of police captain in addition to his regular duties and responsibilities as chief. According to the town’s adopted budget, the position of police chief is entitled to a salary of $168,568 in 2014 but is not entitled to overtime.

On Aug. 1, 2013, following a regularly scheduled meeting, the council met behind closed doors in executive session to consider matters that were disclosed to the public as relating to “personnel” and “contract.” According to the minutes of that meeting, the council unanimously approved a stipend of $1,500 a month for the police chief effective immediately.

In other words, the police chief would be entitled to an annual stipend of $18,000 from the town in addition to his or her regular annual salary.

The council added that “the stipend shall be paid as long as the position of police captain remains unfilled or the stipend may be terminated at an earlier date at such time as determined by the board.”

Shortly thereafter, Daniel Offner, a reporter, wrote a critique of the board’s actions in a cover story to the Aug. 29, 2013, issue of this newspaper. He wrote: “While the Town [Board], in its capacity as police commissioners, can authorize the additional stipend, the decision should not have been made behind closed doors, according to state Open Meetings Law. Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said he does not understand how the town’s decision applies to any of the approved terms of the law. ‘It doesn’t sound like they have any of the applicable qualifiers,’ Freeman said. ‘Therefore they had no basis for executive session.’ Based on Open Meetings Law, the only acceptable criteria which warrant an executive session decision are discussion of ‘the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.’ Although the state does provide an exemption when it comes to the discussion of specified personnel matters, the resolution giving a $1,500 stipend to the appointed title chief of police does not constitute the discussion of a particular individual, but their position in the department. Because the town did not specifically address any payment specifically to Anthony Marraccini, but the designated title of chief, anyone appointed chief in the future could potentially receive the stipend as well, unless terminated by the Town Council.”

Offner quoted Mayor Belmont as disputing the contention that the decision should have been made in a council meeting open to the public. However, in my opinion, Offner’s contention makes a lot of sense.

The salaries of, and any stipends paid to, the town’s elected and appointed positions are a matter of public record. They must be approved annually as part of the town’s budget process, which is open to the public and subject to public comment. If the salary or stipend of an appointed position could be changed by a Town Council behind closed doors outside of the budget process, the deterrent effect of monitoring by the public would be lost.

Setting the law aside, how should the council have approached this issue from an ethical and transparency standpoint? Since the council seemed aware of its obligation to disclose the stipend in its meeting minutes, which are a matter of public record, why would it not take the next step toward greater transparency by including the proposed stipend as an agenda item for the council’s public meeting a short while earlier?

I don’t know what the council was thinking, but it is something they may want to avoid, and residents should be watchful of, in the future.

At its next meeting on Aug. 29, 2013, the council, in public session, voted to rescind the stipend to the police chief as “not appropriate at this time” as described above. The minutes quote Chief Marraccini as saying about the decision to rescind: “I honestly believe that rescinding this is the right thing for the board and the community. I know there are other department heads that are working very hard out there and I appreciate them.”

The reasons given for the decision to rescind were left as vague as that. Offner, the reporter, in a cover story to the Sept. 6, 2013, issue of this newspaper, wrote: “Republican Councilman Joe Cannella said that the [board’s] decision to rescind the stipend stems from the town’s current economic situation and unresolved union issues…”

Though the reasons to rescind remained somewhat mysterious and therefore not entirely transparent, the process by which the council did so was commendably open to public scrutiny.

In light of the foregoing, you can understand why, on the night of Dec. 19, 2013, I was perplexed to hear the comptroller read that the council added a $12,000 annual stipend for the police chief as a last-minute change to the preliminary budget.

The stipend was not included in either the tentative or preliminary budgets, first released on Nov. 7. It was not referred to in any public council meetings, materials or agendas in the intervening days from then until the comptroller’s statement.

In this latest attempt to adopt a stipend for the police chief, the council’s conduct leaves much to be desired. The council has technically complied with applicable law, which allows it to make whatever changes it deems advisable to the preliminary budget during or after the related public hearing. But, given the history of this issue, did council members meet the high standards of ethics and transparency that we have a right to expect of them?

Their conduct raises several questions. Specifically:

Why did the council wait until literally the last minute to insert the stipend into the final budget? At worst, this shows an ulterior motive—perhaps to downplay the stipend as a routine matter to avoid public controversy or criticism. At best, this shows inexcusable laxity—if indeed it indicates that the stipend innocently slipped the mind of council members until the last minute.

As I described earlier, the initial grant and rescission of the stipend in August were the subjects of articles that appeared on the cover pages of this newspaper. In waiting until the last minute to insert the stipend into the final budget, was the council’s motive perhaps to minimize the impact of any adverse press coverage, anticipating that most readers would not have access to local newspapers while away on vacation over the holidays?

Given the council’s open and public decision to rescind the initial stipend back in August and public disclosure of the—arguably vague—reasons therefor, why would it not want to publicly explain why it was reversing itself yet again prior to re-adopting the stipend this time? After all, one of the more damaging aspersions against a politician’s reputation is to be labeled a flip-flopper.

What has changed in the intervening four months since August that would transform a stipend that was “not appropriate at this time” in the words of Mayor Belmont into one that is appropriate now? Has the council persuaded Chief Marraccini to drop his objections to the stipend, as expressed by him in August?

It seems to me that in this most recent episode of adopting a stipend for the police chief, the council has failed to uphold the standards of ethics and transparency we have a right to expect of them. Given the inexplicability of its action, we can only speculate that the council intended the stipend to slip under the radar unnoticed, or at least under-noticed.

This week, Stipendgate, Part I analyzed the process of the council’s decision to adopt a stipend for the police chief. Next week, Stipendgate, Part II will address the merits of the decision to adopt the stipend.