By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO September 6, 2002 The Village of Monticello is no stranger to controversy. It seems that each meeting (held the first and third Monday of each month at the Village Hall) brings an issue for the Village Board and the village residents to debate.
The latest hot issue concerns the Monticello Police Department and their role in the District Attorney's Community Policing Unit (CPU). The CPU consists of representatives of police agencies throughout the county. Members partake in the CPU once a month, and the program has been very successful. In fact, 40 percent of the CPU's busts have happened in the Village of Monticello.
In August, Police Chief Michael Brennan, with the support of Village Mayor Gary Sommers, informed DA Stephen Lungen that the Monti PD wished to withdraw from the CPU. Word of the decision was reported in the media before the board was made aware of the decision. That angered many board members, and they made their feelings known at the board meeting on Monday, August 19. By meetings end, the board decided that the police department would rejoin the CPU.
How it all happened and the information the public was told angered Sommers. In an attempt to set the record straight and to clarify the facts, Sommers contacted the Sullivan County Democrat to talk about the subject. He sat down with the Democrat for an exclusive interview on Friday, August 30 to discuss the CPU and other issues with the Village Board. What follows is that interview with Sommers.
SCD: What was the original reason Brennan wanted to pull out of the CPU?
GS: Mike admitted to me afterwards that his memo to the DA was not clear. The decision came down to two reasons manpower and money. The agreement and it is an agreement, not a contract, there is a difference is that we let them use one officer a month. We pay their salary, and the DA pays the overtime. For 12 weeks a year, we have to pay other officers overtime to make up for the loss of that officer.
SCD: Why didn't you contact the other board members when you knew about the decision?
GS: Honestly, I didn't think of it. I felt it was a department head decision. [Village Manager] Richard [Sush] was on vacation. So Mike asked my feelings on it. I didn't think to talk to the board. I felt it was a department head decision, not a decision for myself or the board.
SCD: Did you plan to discuss it at the board meeting [on August 19]?
GS: Yes. I was very upset when I saw it in the paper. Instead of calling them, Steve [Lungen] should have waited. I was surprised that the finger was pointed at me. I did not sign the memo, the memo came from the chief. I just backed and agreed with the decision. How could the DA, without talking to me, be sure I felt that way? You can say anybody said anything, but you have to check and see if it is true and what was meant.
SCD: What was your reaction to Steve's comments?
GS: I was disappointed. The memo did not close the door. It just said we will not participate at this time. It is Mike's department. He chooses who goes. He felt we should pull the plug. We feel there is a need for men on the street.
SCD: How did you feel with the way you were treated at the board meeting?
GS: It bothered me. No one bothered to talk to me prior to the board meeting. What they did was a matter of showboating. I am not hard to find. I don't think that I have that threatening of an image that someone would be intimidated to come here to my shop and talk to me.
SCD: How do you feel about the decision to rejoin the CPU?
GS: I've always said that I go along and agree with the majority of the board. I will fight the good fight but will do what the majority wants. The resolution to go back to the CPU gives Mike the option to make adjustments as necessary.
SCD: Do you think Steve and Mike are happy with how it turned out?
GS: I don't think Steve is necessarily happy. It was left open so Mike could pull out in December [when the village will lose four officers when the grants that pay their salary expire]. As for Mike, he is okay with it. It is a department head decision. I will back the decision.
SCD: Have you talked to Steve since this all happened? Would you like to try to smooth things over?
GS: I haven't talked to him. I have no problem talking to Steve. I don't think I was treated fairly. He went to the newspaper before he called me or Mike. The memo came from the chief. But, as with any issue, the buck stops with me. It would be nice, before Steve attempts to try me in the press, if he would discuss it with me. It would have been nice if Steve questioned me first privately.
SCD: There were accusations that you had recorded a conversation with Steve. Is that true? If not, how did that accusation come about?
GS: Unequivocally no. I asked Steve if I could play a recording of our conversation. What would you say? I never said I made a recording of the conversation. Since I asked, he must have been under the presumption I must have made it.
SCD: When did you talk to Steve?
GS: The Thursday [8/15] of the week the memo was sent. He had already talked to the press. The damage was done. I did not expect an apology. We discussed the CPU. It was not expressed the concerns of why we wanted to pull out.
SCD: The new board has been in since March. Since that time, there seems to have been arguments on many issues. Why is that?
GS: A lot of it has been partisan politics. Again, it has been showboating. I am hoping my fellow board members would treat their positions with the respect it deserves. I think the new members misunderstand the operation of the board. I am not without sin in this. I probably could have done better and could relate better to the board. They could pick up the phone. The phone works both ways. No one on the board has called me. What would that lead a person to believe?
SCD: Some of the controversies since March have included your appointments, Calpine, board members' comments, and the CPU. Any thoughts?
GS: Calpine was perhaps government at it's best. It was government the way it should be. The people had input. Those in support of the project did not come out. The board made their decision based on the will of the people. As soon as we were done, we moved on. We have other issues. This may sound strange, but the best example of how government should work comes from a Warner Brothers cartoon. It's the one where the wolf and the sheepdog go to work together and are friends. They punch in and have jobs to do. Once they punch out, they are friends again. That's how good government should work. You disagree and you work it out. The most productive time I had on the board was with (former board member) Mike Levinson. We traded shots all the time and had totally different views of life. It became very productive. Yes, we got carried away sometimes, but we always came to middle ground.
SCD: Do you think the new board will be able to achieve that?
GS: I think the new board is on the way to doing that. I hope they will do what is best for the village. The new members do not understand how we operate. There are no deals made behind closed doors. You should ask questions. Our job is not to create more controversy. In public is not the place to take anyone to task. That should be done afterwards. I will continue to take an active leadership role. I will do what is necessary in the best interests of the village.