STOCKBRIDGE — A group of citizens has submitted a petition asking annual town meeting voters in May to repeal the "strong police chief" provision of state law, with a goal of weakening the power of the chief and giving the Select Board greater authority over operations of the police department.
The document containing 22 certified signatures of local residents reflects a deep division in town over Police Chief Robert Eaton's approach to modernizing the department since his arrival in February 2014. Ten signatures were required to place the petition on the town meeting warrant.
On Feb. 5, Eaton confirmed that he had been selected as police chief in Townsend, near Fitchburg. He had also just received a three-year contract extension in Stockbridge through February 2020.
He is expected to submit his 30-day notice of resignation to the town in the near future.
The petition was submitted to the Select Board on Feb. 22 by Mary Hart, who declined comment, telling The Eagle she had not originated the document.
Under the strong chief provision of the state law adopted by Stockbridge town meeting voters in the late 1990s, the Select Board and town voters continue to control the department budget, but the chief is empowered "to make suitable regulations governing the police department and its officers."
The weak chief version of state law assigns to the board the authority to regulate the department's internal policies and procedures, though the chief retains control over "all town property used by the department, and of the police officers, who shall obey his orders."
The three board members declined comment on the citizens petition. "It has to be discussed by the Selectmen," said board member Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo. He is also the town's fire chief under the strong fire chief provision of the state law.
Two former selectmen who signed the petition, George Shippey and Robert Flower, also said they had no comment.
Sarah Horne, a petition signer, asserted that "some of us in town have had a problem with the style of policing the chief and the selectmen have opted for."
Now that Eaton is leaving, she suggested, "the people of the town should err on the side of more control over the style of policing. The Board of Selectmen should be running the police force and should be receptive to what the town is saying; that's their job. They let us down by not listening."
Horne cited former Chief Richard "Rick" Wilcox, who retired two years ago after 29 years in the post and 46 year in the department. "People had gotten to know and trust Rick and had no problem voting for the strong chief law," she said. "With the new chief, it became clear there was not the same level of trust."
"Until we have a chief we know and trust, before he learns to like us and we learn to trust him," she said, "it's better for the town to take back control rather than giving the chief carte blanche."
According to Susan Morris, also listed on the petition, when Eaton was hired, the selectmen "signed a blank check for him to do what he wanted, not what the town wanted." She described him as "a great cop" but contended that Stockbridge was "not a good fit" for him as chief.
She suggested that the expectations of the town and of Eaton were not aligned, but also acknowledged that "Chief Eaton suffers from the fact that Wilcox was much loved and appreciated, he was a tough act to follow."
Wilcox said he would speak out publicly closer to the annual town meeting on May 16.
Morris, who grew up in Lanesborough and Pittsfield and retired to Stockbridge full-time in mid-2014, conceded that Eaton had some supporters from town residents though not a majority, in her opinion. "It's a matter of getting used to change, and change is hard," she said.
Describing Stockbridge as a "cultural mecca that doesn't really need big-city policing," Morris contended that Eaton had declined to have police direct traffic when necessary.
She also conceded that Eaton's two-year tenure included positive accomplishments such as closer ties with neighboring police departments and modernization of the Stockbridge police station.
"Maybe he didn't present what he was doing better," Morris said. "Money is tight these days and people were seeing a lot of price tags" in his proposals.
"Most stuff in town is minor," she stated. "We want to remain a Norman Rockwell town to attract people, so we don't want an aggressive force, we want the police to remain town-friendly. They should have the judgment to determine what's called for, how aggressively the job should be done, depending on the situation."
The noted photographer Lincoln Russell emphasized that while he signed the petition, he's not an Eaton critic.
"It's unfortunate that Mr. Eaton has not been the choice Stockbridge was looking for," he said, describing the petition as "an attempt to further discuss what kind of police force Stockbridge wants, needs or deserves. It will open up a useful conversation before the next chief is hired."
But, he added, "his short tenure is not what the Board of Selectmen and the town expected. He did a good job, too bad he couldn't stay longer but he didn't seem to have the support he needed. I'm not sure there's a harder job than being a policeman."
Horne faulted the Select Board for "not truly listening to the members of the town. I don't blame the chief, they gave him pretty free rein and were willing to back him. Trust has to be earned when you're in a level of authority, and I'm afraid the trust was broken as much by the selectmen. They needed to be responsible to the town as well as responsive to the chief."
"I think the responsibility lies with the selectmen and their paternalistic attitude," she said.
In Horne's view, "there was a level of disdain from the Select Board toward town members. That caused a lot of hurt and anger, and did not help the police chief. The anxiety level is high because people are not being truly listened to."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
In their own words ...
Additional viewpoints voiced by several Stockbridge residents who signed a citizens petition seeking repeal of the "strong police chief" state law adopted by town meeting voters nearly 20 years ago:
"You want to be able to trust your authority in any small town and feel that it's a relationship of mutual respect and not because the selectmen told us that [Chief Robert Eaton] was the best man for the job. He may or may not have been the right person, but he was put in a very difficult position. Lines in the sand were drawn pretty early by the selectmen and the chief was caught in the middle."
— Sarah Horne
"The Selectboard and Town Meeting will have to decide what went wrong, and what would or would not help. You need to have some firm criteria, whether you hire a local or non-local chief."
— Susan Morris
"I've been told that Chief Eaton might have been overzealous in his efforts to maintain safety and decorum, but I'm not sure about that. He's not who Stockbridge thought they were getting."
— Lincoln Russell
What the law says ...
Here are excerpts from the "strong police chief" state law adopted by Stockbridge nearly 20 years ago:
"The chief of police in any such town shall from time to time make suitable regulations governing the police department, and the officers thereof, subject to the approval of the selectmen; provided, that such regulations shall become effective without such approval upon the failure of the selectmen to take action thereon within 30 days after they have been submitted to them by the chief of police. The chief of police in any such town shall be in immediate control of all town property used by the department, and of the police officers, whom he shall assign to their respective duties and who shall obey his orders. Acceptance of the provisions of this section shall be by a vote at an annual town meeting."
Here is a portion of the "weak police chief" state law which a citizens' petition urges town meeting voters to adopt:
"The selectmen may make suitable regulations governing the police department and the officers thereof. The chief of police shall be in immediate control of all town property used by the department, and of the police officers, who shall obey his orders."