By LIZ BUTTON
Since Police Commissioner William Connors stepped down from his post last month, the city’s conception of what an appropriate permanent replacement would look like has evolved to include the option of a public safety commissioner, who would oversee both the police and fire departments.
More than a month has gone by since interim Commissioner Lt. Robert Falk was appointed by City Manager Scott Pickup to fill-in for Connors, who served as Rye’s police commissioner dating back to 2001.
Connors announced he would resign from his position in September 2013, effective Jan. 16, 2014.
The timeline for choosing a replacement for Connors is uncertain at the moment, Pickup said, because there is a range of possibilities to consider since the last time the city considered the job profile of commissioner in 2000.
If the city were to hire a public safety commissioner, this would require a change in the city charter, which would have to be voted on by public referendum, likely in the fall, Pickup said. The city’s corporation counsel, Vincent Toomey, is currently analyzing the prudency of this option.
The city will also consider the budget in its decision, Pickup said, and it is possible that, in creating a new position, the city could find ways to decrease personnel costs in other areas.
“A lot of communities are [hiring public safety commissioners] from the standpoint that public safety is one umbrella,” Pickup said.
The City of White Plains is the only Westchester community that currently has a public safety commissioner who manages both the police and fire departments simultaneously, rather than a regular police commissioner. This role is filled in the city by David Chong, who previously served as the police commissioner for the City of Mount Vernon.Police, fire, EMS and 911 services all report to Chong, making him the head of the city’s largest department.
If Rye were to choose a public safety commissioner instead of a traditional police commissioner, the hope would be the position would facilitate higher-level coordination of the city’s departments and public safety personnel during emergencies. Problems with coordination and communication were issues that came up during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Pickup said Falk, whose initial contract was to serve for 30 days, will likely remain in the interim position for at least another four to six months, as the search for a permanent replacement continues.
The search for a new commissioner began in November 2013, when the City Council, under former Republican Mayor Douglas French, authorized the city manager to retain outside consulting firm International City/County Managers Association, ICMA, for $40,000. The firm’s first order of business was to conduct stakeholder interviews on Jan. 9 and 10 with key members of the community in order to ultimately revise the job profile for a new police commissioner. ICMA generated a report from these two meetings, but the city has not released it yet it since it is still in draft form.
As the process goes forward and the City Council continues to mull its options, the city may decide to spend more money to continue working with ICMA, which was only hired to conduct the first stages of the process: revising the commissioner job description and training the city to interview candidates based on the criteria designated by police, city officials and the community stakeholders.
The city may instead choose to hire another firm instead of ICMA to conduct the second part of the process, which entails finding, vetting and selecting candidates.
Pickup said the council will determine what the next step should be based on the final ICMA report. It may become clear as city council members review the report that a public safety commissioner would make sense, he said.
The meetings in early January were conducted “to help us get an idea of what the community feels should be the qualities in a new police commissioner and what the issues are that a new police commissioner would have to face in our town,” Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, said.
Pickup said the city is continuing to explore all possible types of positions, of which there are a number besides commissioner and public safety commissioner. The city could opt for a police chief—which would place the highest-ranking uniformed officer in charge of the department—or, if the city decides to go with a traditional commissioner again, there is the option to hire from within the department.
Making the decision to hire a public safety commissioner rather than simply a police commissioner “of course opens up a whole host of issues that a lot of people have very passionate opinions about,” Sack said. “It’s something that we need to consider and either go with or dispose of before we continue with the police commissioner search because we shouldn’t be searching for a police commissioner when we may really want a public safety commissioner.”
Once the city has a better sense of the timeline, the council will re-evaluate how many more months the city needs Falk to fill-in as commissioner on an interim basis.
Falk said his tenure has been going smoothly, but the station has also been busy attending to issues related to the recent snowstorms.