I Publius: Handing off power is tricky

A view of Great Barrington, Mass

A view of Great Barrington, Mass

Along with other bedrock ideas, like the regular and peaceful transference of power, one of the fundamental principles of American government is civilian control of the military. We try not to let those who work for our presidents boss them around or, as my Mom used to say, ” take advantage.”

Sometimes we are unsuccessful. J. Edgar Hoover is a perfect example of what happens when those in law enforcement start pushing presidents around. We have seen similar examples with our CIA. The military had JFK on board for the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba but they fed him bad information. The weaker the civilian government, the more likely it is that the president can be shoved around.

George W. Bush is a perfect example of what happens when a weak leader eats what he is given. The words “weapons of mass destruction” spring to mind. Of course, this is all pretty lofty stuff for those of us living in the Berkshires. We have our own problems.

At the last Great Barrington town meeting, the perennial question of how to hire a police chief was raised. The present chief, a nice man named William Walsh, was hired under what is called a “civil service system.” We used to hire chiefs in a different way. Under the old system, the Selectmen did it. Then the town decided to go in another direction and voted for a civil service system.

Walsh took the test and came out at the top of the list. He had some higher education that gave him a real advantage, but at the time he passed, he was a very young man. There was some scuttlebutt around town that the chief wasn’t tough enough to control the people who he supervised. There were a few hard cases in the department who caused a good deal of consternation among the townspeople.

William Walsh has certainly grown into the job and some of the aforementioned officers are now departed. That has made a difference, but there is still some concern that the department is too isolated from the civilians who are supposed to be running the show.

I see some real improvements. I see police patrolling the streets. That’s a good thing. I see police cars driving through the neighborhoods, keeping watch. That, too, is a good thing. Most of all, the police officers with whom I have had occasion to speak are polite and respectful.

Some of this can be laid at the door of a concerned Board of Selectmen and Kevin O’Donell, the new town manager, who does not look like a man to mess with.

To ensure that the Police Department would be manageable in the future, the Board of Selectmen overwhelmingly voted to take the chief’s position out of civil service.

Selectmen Chairman Buddy Atwood told me that in order to avoid blatant political appointments (hiring someone’s uncle Louie), they would institute a new selection procedure. A board comprised of citizens would submit a short-list from which the Selectmen would choose the final candidate.

O’Donnell has done this with other non-police hires. Atwood gave me an example of one guy who would not have been eligible for the chief’s job under the present civil service system but who would be a perfect chief. The man is a colonel in the army with 30 years of service in the military police and a local resident.

Obviously, both the civil service system and the political route contain potential pitfalls. The City of Pittsfield has gone up and down on this seesaw for some time. Of course, Pittsfield has law enforcement problems that keep getting worse.

Last week, Chief Walsh got up at the town meeting to give a speech. Now, the chief cannot be fired because he has civil service protection and indeed, it will be the next chief who will be hired outside of civil service. Nor have any of the patrolmen lost their status under the town meeting vote.

Yet we hear that there were officers who feared that once the chief lost his protection, they would eventually lose theirs. We hear that some of these officers urged the chief to give his speech, urging voters to vote no on removing his civil service status.

One of the former police officers in the department got up to say that the chief had given a wonderful speech. That may be so but the chief made a very specific point. Looking out at the audience he said, “We work for you, the citizens.”

That, of course, is what this is all about and that is the central question that guides this argument. If they work for us, that is a good thing. If they work for themselves, things can get dangerous.

Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/9/09

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