Police Commissioner candidates faced off. They are (l. to r.) Incumbent Roy Smitheimer and challenger Sal Zimbardi
Amid several requests to follow the proscribed format that speakers can only ask questions---not state opinions, several calls to order, and one recess due to a speaker who refused to stop speaking after repeatedly being told he was out of order, League of Women Voters member Joyce Fieldsteel moderated the annual Special District's Candidates Debate. This year, the only contested election is for police commissioner. It is between incumbent Roy Smitheimer and challenger Sal Zimbardi.
After each candidate reviewed his biography and platform (see Port News issue 11/26), Mrs. Fieldsteel invited questions from the audience of approximately 50 people. The questions asked ranged from benign to vicious.
Questioning Mr. Smitheimer's integrity, Sid Siegal asked him about a check made out in 1996, for "questionable" additional legal fees of $32,000 to the then police district's legal counsel Gerard Terry. Mr. Siegal also asked if he knew Mr. Terry personally.
Mr. Smitheimer replied that Mr. Terry had helped represent him, on a pro bono basis, when he ran for office. Mr. Smitheimer said that the fact that he refused to sign the check made out to Mr. Terry, which needed two commissioners' signatures to be valid, clearly indicated that his relationship with Mr. Terry had not interfered with the correct performance of his duties as a police commissioner.
Mr. Zimbardi said that he had read about it in the papers around the time of the incident (Dec. 96-Jan '97). Mr. Smitheimer commented that if one looked in the papers, they would notice that there were no quotes from Commissioner Smitheimer and noted that he had not been contacted for a comment.
Furthermore, he informed Mr. Zimbardi that Barry Loeb had asked the District Attorney to investigate the matter. Stating the results of the investigation, Mr. Smitheimer reported that the District Attorney found that there was "no evidence of wrongdoing." Mr. Zimbardi said that he was unaware of that fact.
David Fertig then accused Mr. Smitheimer of being "disingenuous."
Mr. Smitheimer accussed his attackers of having "agendas" and of not really being interested in looking for the truth.
However, even after the issue had gone a full round, Mr. Siegel fiercely continued with his allegations against Mr. Smitheimer, despite repeated requests and warnings from Mrs. Fieldsteel. Finally, she was forced to call a five minute recess, which succeeded in calming the situation down.
Questioning Mr. Zimbardi's competency, Debbie Solomon asked him to explain why, in April of 1991, while he was the accountant for the Village of Manorhaven, a New York State Comptroller's report was critical of the fact that over $106,000 was budgeted in excess of available funds, and as a result of this he was let go in 1992.
Mr. Zimbardi replied that he did not recall the specifics of the case, but offered to review it and get back to Mrs. Solomon. However, later on, as part of an answer to a question by Steve Zacchario, Mr. Zimbardi said, "The accounting practices in the Village of Manorhaven were actually done by my employer. I was a staff accountant. I didn't sign the report. I didn't prepare the reports, I did the field work."
The full question Mr. Zacchario had asked Mr. Zimbardi went as follows: "We've heard about your accounting practices in Manorhaven. Is Mr. Zimbardi a CPA, and, if not, how many times did he take the exam?
Mr. Zimbardi replied that he never said he was a CPA, and added, "I took the exam several times over a long period of time."
A major go round and source of confusion for the audience stemmed from the "debate" about each candidates' approach to funding police officers' termination pay, which is paid to them upon their retirement from the force. (This is separate from the regular retirement pay they receive on a monthly basis.) The amounts that have to be paid by the district include accumulated vacation pay and pay for unused sick time. For many years, the PWPD had not put money aside for this future financial obligation. (Instead, as officers retired the district included their separation pay in the yearly operating budgets or bonded it out for five years.) In 1997, the district's new accountant, Bill Abrams, advised the board to put monies in a restricted reserve fund for this purpose.
Both candidates appear to agree that a special reserve fund must be established (even though Mr. Zimbardi kept insisting that Mr. Smitheimer was against this plan---countered by Mr. Smitheimer's repeated statement during the debate that he was in favor of it).
The main difference between the two candidates on this matter appears to be how much should have been funded in the first few years of the newly instituted plan, in order to make up for all of the previous years when no money was set aside.
To illustrate his point about the urgency of the situation, Mr. Zimbardi prepared a large chart titled "Police District Massive Debt," in which he listed the number of police officers eligible to retire over the next several years, stating that by 2001, 19 officers will be eligible to retire, which translates in $2.1 million. He was in favor of the district putting aside $1 million over three years to build up the fund reserve. (To date, the 1997 budget included $250,000 and the 1998 budget included $350,000 for this purpose.) "If they don't retire, the money is still in an account earning interest," which, he pointed out, should eventually lead to tax cuts. "It's that much less you have to pay in subsequent years. "
Mr. Smitheimer's first response was to take issue with Mr. Zimbardi's use of the term "debt." He asked, "How much money have we borrowed? from whom? and at what interest rate?" Mr. Smitheimer pointed out that the future retirement severance pay item is "a long-term liability," not an actual debt. He then accused Mr. Zimbardi of using scare tactics. To which, Mr. Zimbardi replied "a debt, is a debt, is a debt".
In Mr. Smitheimer's view, he does not believe that 19 officers will be retiring in 2001. He advised, "Historically, about one officer a year retires." He feels that to have put $600,000 over the past two years in a fund reserve for this purpose, in light of the fact that the police district tax increased 18 percent over the same period, is too aggressive an approach, "It's what I consider overkill." Especially, he noted, when only one out of seven officers who's eligible to retire next year has indicated he'd do so. He said, "They're not putting down their guns and badges and heading for the door. They like working in our great police district."
A few speakers and Mr. Zimbardi said that Mr. Smitheimer went against the advice of the police district's accountant, William Abrams, whom they said was in favor of allocating more money in the special fund reserve for future retirement payouts. Mr. Zimbardi related that Mr. Abrams suggested a "positive approach." "We're all over here and Mr. Smitheimer stands alone on this," said candidate Zimbardi.
Smitheimer countered, "I've said all along, but it seems to be lost on some individuals here, that I've always thought that the money should be planned for and put aside, just as importantly as Mr. Zimbardi is pointing out."
Mr. Smitheimer, then informed the audience and Mr. Zimbardi that Mr. Abrams had put together a memo indicating three different alternatives to deal with the problem. One low-cost, one moderate and one aggressive. "I subscribe to the moderate approach, not the aggressive," said Smitheimer.
Mr. Smitheimer also pointed out that he was not present at the 1997 budget meeting when the retirement fund reserve account was discussed because he had less than 24 hours advance notice of the meeting, and had another commitment. He said, "On top of that, when I asked to be caught up on the meeting by Bill Abrams, as I should have been, the answer from then Police Commissioner Kenny was, "No, you cannot speak to him. That's not allowed."
Mr. Kenny spoke, claiming that Mr. Smitheimer was lying regarding the budget meeting, and asked if he "wanted to reconsider his statement." Smitheimer replied, "I stand by my statement."
In relation to the unfunded retirement bulk payments, Barry Loeb asked what would happen in the event that the payouts needed to be bonded out for five years, and the public failed to approve the bond referendum.
Mr. Smitheimer answered that if it's explained correctly to the public, he believes that "reasonable minds would prevail."
Making another allegation, Mr. Zimbardi claimed that when Mr. Smitheimer was the board's treasurer in l996, the budget did not include $277,000 in his 1997 budget for police salary increases, and this consequently created a "crisis" situation in the district. Speaking about a fund balance analysis performed by Bill Abrams in June of 1997, Mr. Zimbardi said that the results indicated that the district could not pay its bills through the end of the year and went on "emergency austerity."
Mr. Smitheimer characterized Mr. Zimbardi's remarks again as "scare tactics." Mr. Smitheimer said he had to go through it in 1997 as he sat in the board room, where, according to Mr. Smitheimer, Mr. Zimbardi said the police district would have a $100,000 deficit in its budget at the end of 1997. Mr. Smitheimer stated, "Well, wasn't he surprised when there ended up being a $334,000 surplus. There was no crisis, and it was a $434,000 error by him and his own accounting."
Responding to Mr. Smitheimer's explanation, Mr. Zimbardi said, "You got lucky."
(Note: The July 3, 1997 issue of Port News reported on the June meeting at which the accountant's report was given It read: Barring no unforeseen expenses or any demands on unfunded liabilities (i.e. retirement bulk payments), she (Ms. Gross of Abrams and Company, PC) advised that the police district should have somewhere near (a final fund balance of) $83,000 at the end of '97.)
In his closing statement, Mr. Zimbardi made a new allegation against Mr. Smitheimer. He contends that Mr. Smitheimer hired his "friend" from Mineola to write the newsletter in 1996 for $10,000. An expense that he also said is wasterful. He asked why someone in Port wasn't given the business.
Since Mr. Zimbardi was the last candidate to speak, Mr. Smitheimer did not have the opportunity to respond to this new allegation. Therefore, Port News asked Mr. Smitheimer to comment on his opponent's allegation.
According to Mr. Smitheimer, "the friend" was not his friend, at that time, though a friendship had developed between the two men since then. He noted that the amount paid "his friend" was $5,000, not $10,000. He also advised that originally he tried to hire Mike Barry, a public relations person who resided in Port Washington at the time. However, Mr. Barry declined the job.
Mr. Smitheimer also pointed out that the use of a public relations firm was an experiment that ended after its first year. In 1997, he says that he voted to discontinue the contract and chose to have Les Kent write the Blueline, which he says was an "excellent choice."
LWV President Sue Fitzgerald began the question and answer period by asking about ways to avoid future lawsuits, recalling the several costly ones finally settled over the past few years.
Mr. Zimbardi replied that he favored sensitivity training and a re-education program for the staff, one that includes dealing with the problems created by alcohol and smoking.
Mr. Smitheimer replied that two different types of training are needed. Because of the previous practices of past boards, internal training is appropriate, especially in relation to racial and sexual discrimination. External training, in terms of the officers and how they work with the public is also important. He noted that he was instrumental in teaching Spanish as a second language in order to assist the officiers.
The question of the role of the police commissioners was raised by Joan Kent. She asked, "In an ideal Port police district, who should have control over the day to day activities in the department?"
Both candidates agreed that the daily, nonfinancial running, of the department should be the role of the chief.