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Chautauqua Institution Stays Guarded On Security Details

Editor's Corner

An Emergency Medical Services vehicle is parked outside of the Chautauqua Institution after last week’s attack. P-J photo

State Police Superintendent Kevin Bruen had the podium for a little more than a minute during Gov. Kathy Hochul’s press conference at the Chautauqua Institution two days after the attack on internationally known author Salman Rushdie. His statements, as it turned out, were the most significant.

Bruen announced to those in attendance at the Hall of Philosophy last Sunday that an increased police presence will continue for the final two weeks of the Institution season. “Some of it you will see … in terms of uniformed troopers, troopers with K-9s,” he said. “A lot of what will happen you won’t see. There will be investigators doing background work and threat assessment … to try to get ahead of something.”

After the Aug. 12 events that shook the center internationally known for its community of artists, educators, thinkers, faith leaders and friends dedicated to exploring the best in humanity, Bruen’s promise brought some peace of mind to those on and off the grounds. But it did not end the rapid criticism that came after Rushdie and Henry Reese, 73, were attacked right as the lecture was beginning.

To its credit, Chautauqua Institution has remained open and honest in regard to what happened that day and how it is moving forward. It is much less transparent when it comes to the important security issue.

That’s troubling for county taxpayers as well as those who live and support the Institution grounds. A sense of safety has been shattered — and without some semblance of a police force, it’s doubtful those concerns will go away anytime soon.

As a private, not-for-profit, Chautauqua Institution does not pay property taxes. It does have to file 990 forms with the Internal Revenue Service that are public information. In 2019 — the year before the pandemic — the organization reported $32 million in revenues and $32.5 million in expenses. Payroll expenses for all employees topped $15 million.

Yet the documents offer no insight into how much of those expenses go toward patrols and security, especially during a year when there was a Chautauqua Institution Police Department that was then headed by former county Sheriff Joseph Gerace. That same year, the highest paid independent contractors were those listed as doing construction, retail piano work or entertaining. The ranges for those vendors were between $643,524 and $301,305. Security was not among the top five.

Emily Morris, senior vice president and chief brand officer, would not comment on how much of the $32 million Institution budget is allocated for a protection presence. “Just as best practices call us to avoid disclosing the details of our security planning, we are also not disclosing related personnel details,” she said in an email this week.

Municipalities that do not maintain their own police forces receive protection from the state police as well as the county Sheriff’s Department. Some of these entities pay an additional fee for enhanced protection through the county Sheriff’s Department, which is the case with the town of Hanover and village of Silver Creek.

Chautauqua Institution, at this moment, is not paying any additional fees for these services that other entities do. An official at the Sheriff’s Department confirmed there is no contract in place with the Institution. “We may do routine patrols and respond to calls for service on the grounds, just like any other town or village,” the spokesman said. “We may also assign deputies to specific events at the request of Chautauqua Institution.”

That means those services are being paid for by county taxpayers — those same individuals who already maintain their own police protection and pay to enter the Institution gates during the season except on Sundays. As was reported last week by both the OBSERVER and Post-Journal, discussions regarding a town of Chautauqua police force remain on hold until after the November elections, according to town Supervisor Don Emhardt.

Why the delay? “It was at the Institution’s request,” Emhardt said.

That timeline — announced only days before the attack — sounds as though there are political undertones. Let us all hope that is not the case.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.

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