Every municipality in the state has some sort of police and fire commission, an appointed board that most often operates under the radar — even though what they do is among the most important tasks in small town life.
Police and fire commissioners are the folks who are responsible for hiring, firing, promoting and disciplining police officers and firefighters. Every couple of years, they create a list of candidates to choose from by convening examinations and interviewing prospects, ranking them by preference.
William Smith was one of those commissioners in Riverside until just last week, when he retired after serving in that capacity for a month and a half shy of 40 years. During that time, he has been involved in the hiring of more than 45 police officers, including every member of the present police department in Riverside — from the chief on down to the most junior patrol officer.
At 72, Smith, who was the commission chairman, decided it was time to move full time to Key West, Florida, where he has family business interests.
Police Chief Thomas Weitzel described Smith’s approach to the job as “knowledgeable and compassionate.”
“He’s always been a mentor; he’s always given his advice to me, especially when it comes to discipline issues,” said Weitzel. “He always put the village first.”
Patrick Layng, a former federal prosecutor who has served alongside Smith on the Riverside Police and Fire Commission for a decade, called him “the leader of the commission, the voice of reason and experience.”
For his part, Smith said he’s stayed aboard the commission for so long because of the support of the three police chiefs he’s served alongside and the independence they and elected officials have ensured.
“I never once had a call [from anyone asking to favor a police officer candidate],” Smith said. “That was the beauty of Riverside government.”
Smith, who attended the University of Iowa, where he played football and ran track, moved to Riverside in 1971.
He joined the Riverside Police and Fire Commission at the age of 33 after being asked to join the advisory group by then-Village President Edward Meksto. He replaced John Hoaglund, who had been appointed to the Police and Fire Commission in 1946 and served for 33 years.
At the time, said Smith, being on the commission was seen as a stepping stone to the village board, but Smith was never interested in becoming a village trustee.
He said he enjoyed close working relationships with police chiefs Donald Doneske, Eugene Karczewski and Weitzel.
“The best thing about it was serving under three good chiefs,” Smith said.