The Chestertown council is doing the right thing, even if members started going about it the wrong way.
With the resignation of Police Chief Adrian Baker, the council finds itself in the position to potentially overhaul the department. We are not saying that major change is needed at the Chestertown Police Department, but now is a very good time for officials to take a good long look at all their options.
The town finds itself in something of a financial bind. While some seek to tie this to the Port of Chestertown Marina — a massive, multi-million-dollar purchase and renovation project — Mayor Chris Cerino took great pains at a town meeting Monday, Oct. 7 to remind residents that so much of the effort came from grant funds.
Of the town’s $4 million budget, the marina is expected to cost taxpayers $91,500 in principal this year for the 2012 purchase of the property. Marina revenues for the last seven years have covered the interest, according to a presentation given by Cerino Oct. 7.
The issue, as Cerino’s presentation noted, is that town revenues are stagnant, much as the Kent County government’s have been and other municipalities here. Chestertown has seen revenue growth of just 4% since 2009.
The public safety line in this year’s budget comes in just shy of $1.7 million — that’s 43% of the budget. It is followed by public works at a little over $1.2 million. Between those two budget lines, that leaves $1.1 million for the rest of the general fund expenditures.
Town officials are correct in that it makes sense to look at the police department, to see how funds are being spent, what services are being provided and what can be done to ensure Chestertown is properly covered.
Four options are currently being reviewed: the department could be maintained as is with a new chief hired; budget cuts could be ordered for the department; a partnership could be created with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office; or, lastly, the town could just shut down the department.
The council plans to hold off on making a decision for the time being. There is an election coming up for two seats on the five-person Mayor and Council. One incumbent, Marty Stetson, himself a former Chestertown police chief, is not seeking another term. That means there will be at least one new council member.
The council voted 4-1 to hold off until after the election, a move with which we strongly agree. Stetson voted against waiting. The election should give residents a sounding board for certain on this issue. But they deserve even more of an opportunity to be kept in the loop on this particular matter.
Part of the reason Cerino, et. al. found themselves under fire for even considering changes to the department is because they initiated the discussions behind closed doors.
Local government is the level we know to be the most impactful. Municipal government, county government, the board of education: These are really your tax dollars at work. The decisions made at this level directly involve your taxes and your quality of life — and public safety is a big part of that. So these are discussions that should be held in public.
Plus, the Open Meetings Act Manual from the Office of the Maryland Attorney General states that, citing past compliance board opinions, “The discussion about the elimination of a position or department must be open ‘[e]ven where discussion involves a position held by so few employees that everyone knows whose positions are being discussed.’”
And any votes are to be made in public. The Kent County Commissioners discuss individual personnel matters in private, but they take their vote in public. So does the Kent County Board of Education. So too should the Chestertown Mayor and Council.
Cerino said it himself Oct. 7, that the issue had been handled “very clumsily, especially by me.”
The public deserves to be a party to discussions about the future of the Chestertown Police Department. This is a key policy decision that has no business being discussed in the back room.
We reiterate that we have no great concerns about the Chestertown Police Department. And we thank Lt. John Dolgos for agreeing to remain the acting chief for an extended period while we wait for the new council to be seated early next year.
With new leadership both at the police department and on the town council, now is as good a time as any to take a real look at the police department and see if and where change is needed.