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Potsdam tables police officer hire

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POTSDAM — The village board is holding off on hiring a new officer for the Potsdam Police Department.

The board unanimously voted to table the hiring at a special meeting Wednesday morning. Officials plan to revisit the issue at their June 18 meeting.

Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said the tabling was related to recent controversy surrounding the department. He received a complaint Friday from Potsdam resident Gerald Jenks Jr. about a hit-and-run property damage accident in which Sgt. Michael Ames was involved on Halloween night 2010.

Mr. Ames, who was off duty that night, was leaving a party he had attended at Mr. Jenks’s home when he backed into another car and drove away without reporting it, Mr. Yurgartis said. Mr. Ames acknowledged the accident in a police report filed this spring, nearly a year and a half later.

Mr. Yurgartis has called for an independent investigation into why the department handled the accident internally without contacting him or Village Administrator David H. Fenton. He has a meeting scheduled with state police next week to discuss a potential independent investigation.

By the next village board meeting, some of the “confusion and uncertainty” facing the police department hopefully will subside and the board can make a decision, Mr. Yurgartis said.

“My purpose is to give the current situation in the police department time to become clearer,” he said. “We ought to take a short hiatus and try to resolve the current situation.”

Trustee Eleanor F. Hopke agreed. The controversy distracted from the task of hiring an officer, she said.

Chief Kevin A. Bates previously said he thought the department was following protocol by handling the situation internally. He said Mr. Ames had been disciplined internally for his actions but declined comment on how.

Officials are determining whether, and how, to fill the vacancy created when they promoted Mr. Bates, formerly a sergeant, to police chief effective March 31. Mr. Bates replaced the retired Edward F. Tischler.

The board will pick one of three options. It could leave Mr. Bates’s sergeant position unfilled, which would decrease the department staff from 13 to 12; it could hire an additional patrolman to the staff but leave the sergeant position unfilled, decreasing the number of sergeants from three to two, or it could promote a patrolman to sergeant and hire a replacement.

The village has approximately $894,000 budgeted for police salaries in the 2012-13 spending plan, officials have said. Hiring a patrolman but keeping the sergeant position vacant would save $5,500. Not hiring anyone else would save approximately $85,000.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Mr. Bates urged the board to move as quickly as possible on the hire.

“I certainly understand this is an extremely difficult time for the police department and the village board to make this decision,” he said. “The sooner we know which way we’re going to move, the easier it is for us.”

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