STOCKBRIDGE — In a unanimous vote reflecting a strong show of support, the three-member Selectboard has approved a second three-year contract for Police Chief Robert M. Eaton, Jr.
The chief had requested a decision on a contract renewal in a recent letter to the board. Under the terms of his current agreement, either Eaton or the Selectboard could seek a renegotiation by Feb. 3, one year before his initial contract expires.
Without a request from either side, that agreement would have been renewed automatically for another three years, board Chairman Charles Gillett said. He described the renewal provisions as "common in municipal contracts."
During an executive session Friday, Gillett, with Selectmen Stephen Shatz and Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, who's also the fire chief, met with Eaton and Town Administrator Jorja-Ann P. Marsden to discuss the renewal. Personnel negotiations involving town employees must be held behind closed doors, according to state law.
"We asked questions, received answers and voted to renew the contract as the chief proposed with minimal changes," Gillett said. "It's essentially the same contract he's had for the first three years, with salary increases over time."
"I'm very pleased that we got a strong vote of confidence from all three selectmen and that they agreed to renew my contract for another three years," Eaton said in an interview on Monday. "Not only did they support me but also the direction of the department and its employees."
"It was absolutely a strong vote of confidence," Gillett said. "The tone of the meeting was positive and upbeat. The chief was congratulated on his performance and we were all pleased at the end that we were able to come to an agreement."
At public meetings, a few local residents have questioned Eaton's approach to policing in the town, which was in contrast with longtime former Chief Richard "Rick" Wilcox's style. In particular, the new chief's initial proposal to gradually expand the size of the department met with pushback from a vocal minority.
"We had a lot of citizens' input in various forms," Gillett acknowledged, including a Selectboard meeting on Jan. 11 highlighted by strong expressions of support as well as questions and criticism from several residents.
Gillett told The Eagle on Monday that many supportive letters had been received by the Selectboard. He also cited "many positive comments at the post office, running into people I know, and phone calls."
As a result, he declared, "my view is that the chief personally, and his style of policing, are very supported by the majority of people in town."
At the executive session, Gillett said, "we were negotiating the provisions of the contract but we were not concentrating on the style of policing, that's not covered in the contract."
The new agreement covers February 2017 to February 2020. Eaton's initial salary when he began work in February 2014 was $85,800, followed by 2.5 percent annual increases in July 2014 and July 2015, the same granted to union and non-union municipal employees.
Under the new agreement, Eaton will earn $97,500 as of Feb. 3, 2017, with increases of an estimated 2.5 percent each July over the three-year life of the contract, again parallel to annual raises for other town employees.
Eaton stated that "during the past several months, we have received a lot of positive feedback and support from full-time and second-home residents, merchants and from other communities. We're very grateful for their support and look forward to working with everyone in the future."
Acknowledging skepticism from some residents about his five-year proposal to add one full-time officer annually, Eaton explained that "we have reorganized and restructured the department so we can service the community at the times of day and on the days of the week that were most needed."
Instead of seeking to add full-time police, the plan is to use reserve officers "to serve the community's' needs and wants," he said.
In addition to the chief, the department has six full-time officers, including Sgt. Darrell G. Fennelly, and four reserves, Eaton said. Three of the reserve officers are fully qualified to fill open shifts and work patrols as needed on a temporary basis.
Several residents have voiced a desire for a more visible police presence downtown as well as enhanced traffic supervision in the summer.
"We're re-evaluating how to properly handle traffic flow downtown, especially at peak times," Eaton said.
He noted that last year, extra foot patrols were assigned downtown every weekend during the spring, summer and fall. "We will continue to have those special assignments downtown," Eaton stated.
He also said that he and the officers walk the downtown area year-round for at least two hours every day.
The chief emphasized that he and the department have an open-door policy and he encourages anyone to come in to discuss any concerns.
On the early and rapid contract renewal, Eaton said: "I was hopeful that it would be resolved quickly and that our track record ... would speak for itself."