Uproar Over Future of Village Cops

Board’s lack of openness decried, and what about the big headquarters?
Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride heard complaints on Tuesday evening from several residents, including Police Chief Tom Fabiano, about closed-door negotiations with other police departments. Carrie Ann Salvi

    “Consideration of alternatives to how the Police Department is organized is something the people should have input in,” Pierce Hance, a former mayor of Sag Harbor, said at the start of Tuesday evening’s village board meeting. In time set aside for public comment, Mr. Hance asked questions of the village’s current mayor, Brian Gilbride, regarding the future of the department, the possibility of outsourcing police services to the county, and the board’s negotiations with the departments of Southampton and East Hampton Towns for that purpose.
    Mr. Hance was displeased that his efforts to learn more were obstructed by executive sessions and the board’s refusal to allow the press access to proposals, despite Freedom of Information Law requests.
    “The fact that we are as open as we are is a credit to us,” Mr. Gilbride responded. He explained that he is dealing with an expired Police Benevolent Association contract and that negotiations had reached a stalemate. “We continue to meet to resolve something,” he said, “but the cost of policing in Sag Harbor is getting very expensive.” The average salary, pension, and medical package has been $178,000 each for 13 officers, he said, but a recent increase in retirement pay has brought that figure to around $182,000.
    “There will be time for public discussion when this unfolds,” Mr. Gilbride promised.
    “Why isn’t the public privy to the alternatives now,” Mr. Hance asked. “Why can’t you have these meetings in public?” The village board voted to consider bringing in outside police services on Sept. 23.
    Mr. Gilbride wondered if open information might have altered the negotiations already. Correspondence with the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office about having its officers patrol the village ended up on the Schwartz Report online, he said. “Last Friday we got a proposal from Southampton which is different from when we met with [Town Police Chief William] Wilson.”
    Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano also had a question for Mr. Gilbride: Does he plan to abolish his department or cut it in half? He said he had heard of or seen evidence of both.
    The proposal was for half, Mr. Gilbride said, but police officials in East Hampton Town, in which a portion of Sag Harbor sits, suggested that the entire department be replaced. Still, “I want to have a Sag Harbor police force with maybe other services backing them up,” the mayor said. “People stop me in the street and say get rid of all of them, but I am not of that opinion.”
    Chief Fabiano asked how it would be possible to have half of the officers working for the village and half for the Sheriff’s Office. A high-ranking member of the Sheriff’s Office didn’t know how that would work either, the chief said. He said he was hurt that he hadn’t been shown any of the proposals after policing the village for 35 years.
    “I don’t mind talking about it,” Mr. Gilbride said. The issue had not been on the meeting’s agenda. “At the end of the day, to me, this has to do with the cost of policing . . . if you look at the sheriff’s proposal, they can supply pretty much what we have now . . . for roughly $923,000, for which we now pay $2.4 million.”
    “You’re getting a lot more,” said Chief Fabiano.
    “I don’t know that,” Mr. Gilbride replied. “This is becoming about how much Sag Harbor can afford with a 2-percent tax cap,” he said, referring to the new state limit on property tax increases.
    “Can we let the village vote on it before we go ahead any further?” asked Jeffrey Peters, a member of the village’s harbor committee. “Can’t we let the people make the decision first?”
    A potential savings of $1.6 million is what must be considered, Mr. Gilbride said. Later, maybe the village could have its own police force again, he said.
    “What we’re doing is receiving bids from other departments,” Edward Gregory, a village board member, told Mr. Peters. “We want the best bang for the buck and the best people. . . . It’s all dollars and cents.”
    Kevin Duchemin, the board’s newest member, did not speak at the meeting but told The Star on Tuesday that he alone on the board had voted against the proposal to outsource police services because most village residents realize “we have a terrific department” and that “response times are great.” He doesn’t know many people who question their village tax bill, he said.
    “I appreciate your looking out for us,” Mr. Peters said. “I just think you should ask our opinion.”
    Answering further questions, Mr. Gilbride said that traffic control would remain with the village, as would ticket revenues. Of the police headquarters, expanded not all that long ago, the mayor said, “We can rent that building. I don’t want that. . . .”
    “With those kinds of numbers, it may make sense to abolish” the department. “It worked in Greenport,” where Southold Town took over police services.
    “With the current costs of retirement and medical,” Mr. Gilbride continued, “that is what’s becoming difficult . . . we started going down this road and we’re going to finish it.”
    “This is not a public hearing,” Mr. Hance reminded the board from the audience. “If I didn’t ask the question or the chief didn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about this.”
    “If we can release these proposals, I will be happy to do it,” Mr. Gilbride said, adding that he would talk about it with Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., the village attorney. “It doesn’t phase me one iota . . . this discussion is not over; it’s in the beginning stages.”
    Mr. Thiele was in fact at the meeting. “You don’t have to release them,” he told the mayor. “If you want to release them, you can.”
    “I don’t think there is an intention of secrecy,” said Robby Stein, another board member, who called the situation a dialogue. “A lot of this has been fact-finding,” he said. “Then it really should go to public discussion.”
    Wearing a neck brace after fracturing his neck in a recent bicycle accident in the village, he added, “I wouldn’t have wanted to wait a long time for someone to show up when I was hit by a deer. . . . I probably wouldn’t be here.”
    Mr. Stein took a few moments at the end of the meeting to “thank this community that has been extraordinary.” He has recently begun remembering the early September accident, and recalls biking along a cemetery when he was hit by a deer from the side and behind and lifted off his bicycle. He was airlifted to Stony Brook University Medical Center with two fractured vertebrae in his neck, one in his back, a broken nose, a concussion, and many stitches. He said on Tuesday that he had “mostly recovered.”