STOCKBRIDGE — Police Chief Robert Eaton confirmed on Wednesday that he intends to accept an offer as chief of police in Townsend, a community of about 8,000 in Middlesex County.
After an at-times tumultuous two years as head of the department here, Eaton declined to discuss his reasons for taking the new position.
Eaton just signed contract extension in Stockbridge that would have paid him over $100,000 a year before it ended in February 2020. The contract was renegotiated and signed last week after Eaton and the town agreed to review it under a re-opener provision in his current agreement, which expires Feb. 3, 2017.
Town leaders apparently were blindsided when news of Eaton's choice as the sole finalist in Townsend was first reported by The Lowell Sun, The Eagle's sister paper, on both publications' websites last Friday.
On Wednesday, Eaton declined an interview but issued a statement confirming that "it appears" he will accept the offer from Townsend. Final contract details are still being worked out.
"I am honored to have served the community of Stockbridge and its residents, and I am grateful for the two years that I have spent here," he said.
"I understand that word of my candidacy for this position may have made its way to the media before I was prepared, and while I am excited and motivated for this new challenge in my career, I will be leaving Stockbridge on the best of terms," he continued. "I could not be more appreciative of the support I have enjoyed here during my career."
Eaton described his decision to accept the offer from Townsend as "simply a new opportunity for me to advance my career and pass the torch to the next leader of the Stockbridge Police Department."
Selectman Stephen Shatz said there would be no comment from the board, pending a letter of resignation from the chief. Under his current contract, Eaton is required to give the town 30 days' advance notice in writing if he plans to resign.
"Until we get a letter, he remains chief of police," Shatz told The Eagle on Wednesday afternoon.
Eaton, in a brief text message, stated that he has not submitted a resignation letter and does not know when he will do so.
Shatz had made a similar statement earlier in the day during the regular weekly meeting of the Board of Selectmen after town resident Mary Hart asked if he could comment on what she called "the elephant in the room."
Hart told The Eagle later that she has been "skeptical" of the chief's commitment to the town since he and his family had not moved here full-time.
"Our small town expected and deserved somebody who would live in town," she said.
While Hart said she had "nothing personal against the chief at all," she found it disappointing that he was not seen on the downtown streets as often as his predecessor, Richard "Rick" Wilcox.
"Policing should be about protecting and serving," she said.
"I missed the visibility of the chief," Hart said, adding that she had also been concerned about what she described as the departure of many of the department's officers since Eaton arrived.
Hart also sought to dispel rumors that intends to run for an open seat on the Board of Selectmen this May. "I don't know where that came from."
Her husband, John Hart, among the town residents who has been critical of the chief's approach to policing at public meetings, said on Wednesday that "we missed the boat when we hired him and when the search committee went out looking for him."
He noted that he had submitted a petition to the board signed by 81 residents recommending consideration of hiring a chief from within the local force "or at least locally."
"Eaton heard numerous concerns from people about his policing tactics and, until recently, chose to ignore them," Hart said.
"I think Chief Eaton is overqualified for Stockbridge," he said, adding that "he's a fine man."
In his statement, Eaton thanked Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden, the Board of Selectman and former Selectwoman Deb McMenamy "for their support, honesty and professionalism throughout this process. Their loyalty and dedication to the Town of Stockbridge and its residents has been tremendous and it has been an honor to work alongside of them as the chief of police."
He also thanked the members of the force.
"Our residents, business owners, and visitors are safer and more secure than ever thanks to your dedication, integrity, professionalism, and your commitment to each other and your community, " he stated, addressing the officers. "I feel comfortable moving on in my career knowing that you all will continue to exemplify the highest standards in municipal law enforcement."
"I am looking forward to this new challenge and opportunity in Townsend," Eaton said.
On Tuesday night, the Townsend Board of Selectmen met briefly in a public session before going behind closed doors to negotiate contract details with Eaton.
Chairwoman Carolyn Smart said she felt Eaton had already been sufficiently interviewed by the town's Police Chief Screening Committee on Feb. 2 and had been vetted by hiring consultant BadgeQuest.
"He's a great guy," Smart said. "I think the committee got it right."
During the public session, Eaton said he was humbled to be the unanimous choice of the Screening Committee and the informal citizens committee that interviewed him and two other finalists.
Eaton said that he had not been seeking another job until the position in Townsend came up. He added that he believes he can be more effective in a larger town than Stockbridge, which only has 1,800 full-time residents and no schools within its borders.
Eaton said he misses being involved in the schools, and sees the local school system in Townsend as an opportunity for community involvement.
The Townsend board plans to continue contract negotiations with Eaton in executive session next Tuesday.
Former Townsend Police Chief Erving Marshall. Jr. retired last September after 15 years in the post. His base salary in his final year was $108,089.
Eaton's current base salary in Stockbridge is $87,945, with a 2.5 percent increase scheduled for July if he had chosen to remain. His new contract, as of February 2017, would have given him a base salary of $97,500, with annual increases of 2.5 percent.