In an unexpected turn of events, the Hyattsville City Council tabled discussion of next year's budget over objections raised about police staffing.
The dispute centers on a newly discovered discrepancy between police staffing called for in two different budget measures. In mid-April, the city council approved a police department budget which laid out a 32-person patrol division split between six sergeants, seven corporals and 19 privates. However, the omnibus budget bill distributed to the city council at the end of April–which consolidates all the proposed department budgets, revenue expenditures and capital improvements under one measure–contains a different staffing layout. That measure calls for eight sergeants, three corporals, two acting corporals and 19 privates.
Currently, the city has three acting corporals and one acting sergeant, all in the patrol division.
"I'm not happy with it," said Hyattsville Police Chief Doug Holland during debate on the issue. "My intent was to increase the number of sergeants and keep the number of corporals."
Holland pointed out that the organizational charts supplied to the city council when they first approved the police department budget contained no mention of acting corporals.
"It wasn't until April 30 that the acting positions showed up," said Holland.
For the rank and file police officers, the staffing changes could translate into fewer opportunities to advance their careers, argued Zach Nemser, vice president of the Hyattsville Fraternal Order of Police and a detective in the city police department.
"This may sound like a numbers game, but it really isn't because there are people attached to these numbers," said Nemser. "It's not just a number on a sheet, it's people trying to advance their careers."
That lack of career opportunities could cause many police officers to leave for greener pastures, said Nemser. He told the city council that 20 of the 42 police officers in the city police department have recently applied to other law enforcement agencies.
"That should tell you something is wrong," said Nemser. "It would be nearly debilitating to our department."
Mayor Marc Tartaro and Council Vice President David Hiles (Ward 2) disagreed with the objections, saying that the police department budget passed in April provided for two additional sergeant positions to allow corporals to advance up the ladder. Indeed, the term "ladder position" was used frequently during discussion of the police department staffing. Tartaro and Hiles said that such a ladder position was never intended to create additional corporal positions.
"My clear understanding was that we had a ladder position established. There were people in corporal positions that we wanted to move into sergeant," said Hiles. "It was quite clear that it was a ladder position, not a new position, and I really am disappointed that it's being brought up tonight."
"In moving to a structure where there are more corporals, you are moving to a position where there are more supervisors than line people," said Tartaro.
Tartaro also said that the public was not getting the full picture, but he was reluctant to reveal just what that might be. He said that a complete discussion of police staffing should be held in closed session.
"We don't have the whole conversation right now, and it's making this very difficult," said Tartaro. He argued that the debate could be construed as a personnel matter under Maryland's Open Meetings Act because the employees affected could be identified if the city council were to continue to openly debate the rationale behind the staffing changes.
However, Maryland's Open Meetings Act provisions which allow closed sessions are "inapplicable to discussions of issues affecting classes of public employees," according to the state Attorney General's Open Meetings Act Manual. The closed session exceptions "only extends to discussions pertaining to specific personnel.
"I feel like he uses those closed sessions like a crutch, where he can say whatever he wants to, and it doesn't get out to the public," said Nemser, criticizing Tartaro's call for closed session deliberations. "To me, it's kind of a stretch that it's a personnel issue or a closed session issue. All we're talking about is are these numbers on the page. It's part of a budget. It wasn't a closed session issue this entire time, and now it is."
In the end, Councilor Tim Hunt (Ward 3), moved to table the measure to get more information on the staffing changes. The motion was carried by a vote of seven to three, with Tartaro, Hiles and Councilor Carlos Lizanne dissenting.
For Tartaro, who was last night, the delay caused considerable consternation
"The question is, do we pass the budget tonight, or do we wait a month?" said Tartaro. He argued that any delay at this point would push the city council up against state requirements to have a budget in place at least 20 days before the start of the new fiscal year in July.
After the meeting, Nemser said that the staffing changes amounted to political meddling in police affairs.
"It seems like the mayor thinks he can run the police department better than the chief of police and that doesn't make sense," said Nemser of Tartaro, who works as an architect by day. "I don't think he'd ask the chief to design a building for him."