[JK: This post has been corrected on March 25, 2022. The lieutenant that was demoted to sergeant was not a woman]
At the March 15, 2022, City Council meeting, Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino announced, without prior notice to the public or the Police Department, that he was eliminating the Assistant Police Chief position, setting off a string of demotions within the department.
Montagnino successfully sold his narrative to the media that these moves were designed to put more police on patrol to address recent violent episodes on Caroline Street and to eliminate excessive bureaucracy and duplication of duties. A closer look at the Commissioner’s recent moves, however, reveals a very different story.
A Little History
Last December, then Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton promoted Lieutenant Robert Jillson to Assistant Chief of Police. Montagnino went to the media to accuse Dalton of illegally pre-empting his authority to fill the position. The story had an unusually long life as the two exchanged arguments through the media over the promotion. Eventually, Montagnino was forced to concede that it had been legally done, and he would have to accept it.
Well, he might have accepted it then, but as we now know, he was not done with Lieutenant Jillson.
Montagnino’s Cynical Revenge
While Montagnino likes to continually tout his commitment to transparency, his manipulative and dishonest use of his authority was on display at the March 15, 2022, Council meeting.
Montagnino had put the following item on his agenda for the Council meeting: “Discussion and Vote: Patrol Division Increase Initiative – Phase 1.” Conspicuously absent from this bland-sounding agenda item was a link to the actual resolution which would abolish Jillson’s position and lead to the demotion of other officers.
This was a flagrant violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law. Governor Hochul signed two pieces of legislation last October requiring that any resolution to be considered by a public body must be posted at least twenty-four hours prior to the meeting. Commissioner Montagnino, who is an attorney and who is never shy about reminding the public of his status and of his expertise in all things legal, would do well to remind himself of his need to adhere to the Open Meetings Law.
Montagnino’s failure to post on the city’s website the resolution he was bringing forward for a vote was no inadvertent error. Given Commissioner Montagnino’s continual self-promotion in the media, especially in the Times Union, his newfound shyness was out of character. Montagnino knew exactly what he was doing. He was hiding his plan. He had been on the job for only two and a half months, but according to multiple sources, he went ahead with this plan to reorganize the Police Department without first consulting the Chief of Police or any other members of the city’s sworn officers regarding his planned demotions. A manager acting professionally would have first asked for feedback from his staff as to any problems such a major initiative might precipitate that they had not anticipated. Why would Montagnino take such an impactful action after less than three months on the job without consulting at least his Chief of Police?
There is also the essential and fundamental element of trust. Even in the case of an unpopular initiative, basic respect and courtesy would require a manager to communicate directly with those their decision will affect. Failure to do so creates an atmosphere of fear and undermines morale. Employees will continue to worry over what “the boss” will do next.
It tells you a great deal about Montagnino’s character that aside from being a very bad manager, he had neither the courage nor the integrity to face Jillson and the other officers. Jillson and the others who were demoted would have to learn their fate from a City Council meeting.
All of this reminds me of the television comedy, “The Office” about an office managed by a clueless executive played by Steve Carroll. The only difference is that while the character played by Carroll was inept, he was not vindictive.
If nothing else, Montagnino is a savvy media player. Montagnino wanted to make sure that he would have the stage all to himself. With Commissioner Scirocco’s absence, he knew he could rely on his compliant fellow Council members not to raise questions. He did not want anyone, though, to refute any of the dubious arguments he was making so the media would provide him with the publicity he was seeking to promote his narrative unchallenged. All of this, according to Montagnino was supposedly about putting more police on patrol and the last thing he wanted was an aroused public challenging his assertions at the meeting.
Lieutenant Jillson is popular with the men and women in his department. Jillson’s demotion will have a cascade effect. He will go back to his position as Lieutenant. A lieutenant will be demoted back to sergeant. A sergeant will go back to patrolman. Montagnino knew the effect eliminating the position would have on morale in the Police Department, but he clearly did not care.
These demotions were tough enough, but the underhanded way it was done only further poisoned the atmosphere in the department. If Montagnino wanted the people he is supposed to lead to distrust and fear him rather than admire and respect him, he was successful.
Exposing Montagnino’s Misrepresentations: Duplication? Shame On You, Commissioner
In explaining his reorganization plan, Montagnino claimed that he was eliminating duplication in the Police Department. He specifically referred to the positions of Chief and Assistant Chief as duplicative and wasteful. I was struck by the fact that he didn’t even attempt to create the façade of seeking out all of the facts. By all reports, he never spoke to either Chief Crooks or Lieutenant Jillson about what they did each day. It is important to remember that Montagnino has been in office less than three months and by all accounts has spent little if any time actually talking with staff and learning how the department works. According to his own public statements, he based his decision entirely on a reading (misreading?) of the two positions’ job descriptions.
The management structure of the police is extremely lean. In 2014 under Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, the management team was reorganized. The position of captain was eliminated. The command structure became simply the Chief of Police and the Assistant Chief of Police. There was no administrative staff. No secretary. No clerk. The Chief and his Assistant, beyond their roles of running the department, were responsible for taking calls, typing reports, filing documents, etc.
It is absolutely true that the job descriptions of the two men include many of the same duties. As noted, the Chief of Police has no administrative support other than the Assistant Chief. Of course, they share many tasks. They run the department together. What makes all this so ugly is that James Montagnino knows this. To use the duplication argument exposes his cynicism and his contempt for the public and the Police Department
So now Chief Crooks must manage the entire department with no support staff and no assistant.
Montagnino has made it very clear that he wants to draw leadership staff from outside the department. I do not think that it is at all far-fetched to speculate that he knows what an impossible position he has put Chief Crooks in and that part of his agenda is getting rid of the chief.
Montagnino also asserted that forty percent of the force “never leaves the office.” I have spoken to numerous people at the department and they are at a loss as to how he arrived at this number. I wrote to Montagnino asking how he arrived at that number but, not surprisingly, he has not responded. I submit that he grossly overstated this and being unable to defend his claim, silence is his strategy.
How About Taking on the Real Issue?
The department currently has eight vacancies in its patrol staff. Another seven are at the training academy and will not be able to operate fully as officers until November. If history is a guide, there is a good possibility that once they learn what life is like as a police officer, particularly these days in Saratoga Springs, some of them will resign and seek other employment.
If Montagnino wants to get more boots on the ground, what he really needs to do is to come up with a plan to attract and retain well-qualified staff.
It is important to remember that this string of demotions has come on the heels of Montagnino’s attempt to break the police contract by getting rid of the 12-hour shifts the PBA had spent months negotiating for. What he has managed to do during his less than three months in office is discourage people from joining our police department by getting the word out that it is a hostile environment to work in.
How To Insult Your Staff
At the same March 15, 2022, City Council meeting, Commissioner Montagnino managed to further insult his staff.
Included in his agenda was the purchase of three police vehicles.
In this video clip, Montagnino explains why he had put off the awarding bids on the cars explaining:
“I wanted to investigate to confirm in fact these purchases were properly bid out and I can state for the record there is a statewide program…” he goes on to describe how he confirmed it was done properly.
Now, I guess there is something to be said for a commissioner who is so rigorous that he personally reviews all the purchases made by his department. The problem is that if you worked for him handling the bid, he has announced to the public that he did not have confidence that you had done it properly. It was entirely unnecessary and gratuitous of him to present himself as the rigorous manager at the expense of his staff. He could have simply just asked for approval of the bid.
His alleged thoroughness was particularly pretentious because the entire bidding process was done through the state which clearly he didn’t know.
The fact is, the reason he did this was to create the appearance that he is a hands-on manager steeped in the ongoing operation of his department. Again, this shameless pretense is belied by the fact that he comes into the Public Safety office infrequently, and when he does, he hardly ever talks to any of his staff.
Montagnino: Out Of Touch With The People He Is Supposed To Lead
What is important to understand about Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino is that he is out of touch with the men and women he is supposed to lead. He is rarely at the department and when he is, he has almost no contact with the staff and that includes his top officers. His staff is the last to learn about his heavy-handed initiatives.
Commissioner Montagnino is an example of what I call the “Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome.” This is a person so taken with their own brilliance and with their own voice that they have little room for anyone else’s insights. In the case of Montagnino, he is legitimately smart, poised, and articulate enough that he can burn brightly with success for a while. Still, that kind of narcissistic deafness will eventually require that he pay a price for his failure to listen. Unfortunately, the cost of his arrogance will be shared by the police department, the fire department, and the people of Saratoga Springs.