By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Monticello officials are just about to pick a permanent police chief.
On the eve of that decision, however, the village board has halted Acting Police Chief Mark Johnstone’s traditional use of the chief’s car.
Citing the rising costs of gas, the board voted 3-1 Tuesday to restrict the travel of that village-owned vehicle a 2009 Chevy Impala to the village boundaries.
That’s in line with a policy the board enacted last year for the other department heads’ vehicles, said Village Manager John LiGreci.
“We feel it’s to our advantage not to allow the chief or any other agency to take their vehicles outside the village,” he explained, estimating a $560/fillup savings to Monticello.
The policy hadn’t affected former Police Chief Doug Solomon, said LiGreci, because he lived in the village.
Johnstone, however, lives 12 miles outside Monticello and since becoming acting chief two months ago has been taking the chief’s Impala home.
Johnstone said he wasn’t included in discussions about whether or not this change would be prudent.
“To me, it’s kind of silly ... and I didn’t even get to make my case,” he remarked.
While he didn’t go so far as to say it’s a public safety hazard, the loss of the use of his vehicle outside the village deeply concerns him.
“I’m the acting chief of one of the busiest police departments in the area,” he pointed out. “... We have things that require my immediate attention. ... And it’s a gallon of gas a day we’re talking about.”
Johnstone, who’s one of the three candidates to become permanent chief, feels the decision was ill-advised and personal.
“I know I’m not their favorite,” he observed.
Mayor Gordon Jenkins, however, insisted it’s all about trimming costs.
“Nothing’s personal it’s not picking on any one department. We’re trying to save money,” he stated. “This was just a perk ... and those days are over.”
He acknowledged the vehicle restrictions have proven unpopular, but he is adamant the chief doesn’t need the use of a taxpayer-funded car outside the village limits
“He can take his own car,” Jenkins said, arguing that the chief’s immediate presence is rarely warranted at an emergency. “When the chief comes to a scene, you have a large amount of people [police officers] there anyway.”
“You have sergeants and lieutenants who run the daily operations when the chief is not here,” agreed LiGreci.
“But in Liberty and Fallsburg [neighboring PDs], the chief takes the car home,” pointed out Trustee Carmen Rue, who was the lone dissenter in Tuesday’s vote.
She agreed with Johnstone that a fully outfitted police vehicle is necessary for the chief’s quick use, wherever he may be.
“This is wrong completely,” she firmly stated. “We have an obligation to protect the people in Monticello.”
Rue also believes this action agreed to by Jenkins and trustees TC Hutchins and Larissa Bennett (James Matthews was absent) is an attempt to push Johnstone out “just to bring somebody in from the outside.”
But both Jenkins and LiGreci affirmed that the just-released results of the Civil Service exam for the chief’s position mean an existing Monticello police officer will become the permanent chief.
LiGreci said Johnstone, Sgt. Doug Oldfield and Lt. William Goble were the top three scorers on the exam, and he’ll choose one of those three as early as today.
He has to pick from the top three, though Jenkins wants to have some say about the final choice, as well.
LiGreci said Police Commission Consultant Preston Felton joined him in the candidates’ interviews earlier this week, in an advisory role.
At the time of this interview, LiGreci wasn’t yet ready to announce his choice but said it would be based on who is most respected by the officers, can best communicate with the board and administration, and is considered approachable by the general public.