You know what it generally means when a government board declares it’s going to handle a potentially controversial matter “internally?”
It means that board doesn’t want the public to know the facts of the matter because they might be embarrassing or damaging to the reputation of some officials in that government.
At least that’s what it usually looks like, especially when the subject of that “internal” review wants the issue aired in public.
So one can’t blame Niskayuna residents for being suspicious of the town board’s motives after the sudden cancellation last week of a public disciplinary hearing for Deputy Police Chief Michael Stevens.
Stevens is apparently under investigation for violations of town policy. But he’s so confident of his innocence that he supports a public airing of the town’s grievances against him.
Personnel matters relating to discipline of public employees are most always handled in secret — usually to protect the individual under investigation from having yet-unproven allegations aired in public.
The state Open Meetings Law allows governments to discuss such matters behind closed doors to ensure the integrity of the process.
But in this case, Stevens actually wants the public to observe the proceeding, an indication that it is town officials who have something to be worried about.
When Stevens and his attorney called the town’s bluff, the board folded and made the matter “internal.”
Maybe it’s the board’s own actions they don’t want known. Or maybe they just don’t want to air the police department’s dirty laundry in public.
Either way, the public has a right to know what’s going on.
Even with the dismissal of the investigation and cancellation of the public disciplinary hearing, the deputy police chief’s reputation has already been tarnished by the allegation. It’s in Stevens’ best interests, and that of the police department and the citizens, that the information that fueled this investigation be made public.
If town officials still believe they have a legitimate grievance and have nothing to hide or be embarrassed about, they will bring their case against Stevens in public.
At the very least, they have an obligation to offer the citizens a look at the allegations and the documentation so the people can get a full picture of this situation.
To first announce a public disciplinary hearing, then pull it back at the last minute without explanation, hints that something nefarious is going on behind the scenes.
If the Niskayuna town board hopes to hold onto the public’s trust, it will have to earn that trust by being open and honest about this situation.
Otherwise, what are we to believe?