STOCKBRIDGE — One month before Police Chief Robert Eaton's departure for his new post as chief in Townsend, the Select Board has voted 3-0 to name Sgt. Darrell Fennelly, the department's second-in-command, as the next chief.
Pending settlement of a contract, Fennelly, 47, a Tyringham native with 16 years of full-time experience on the Becket and Stockbridge police forces, would take over as chief on May 1.
Selectman Stephen Shatz said he and his colleagues had been thinking about how to fill Eaton's position ever since he emerged nearly two months ago as the finalist for the post in Townsend, a larger community near Fitchburg.
Earlier in Wednesday's meeting, Chairman Charles Gillett read a board statement praising Eaton's two-year service as chief.
"The Board of Selectmen regrets Bob's decision but we are also understanding of it," Gillett said. "During Chief Eaton's tenure, he brought a new level of professionalism to our police department. He instituted modern police methods and practices, greatly improved officer training and most significantly retained an exceptional group of young men and women to serve in the department."
Gillett offered Eaton best wishes in his new position and thanked him "for the valuable contributions which he has made to our community."
Eaton had been selected through an extensive search that included about a dozen local residents, aided by an outside consultant.
"It was an interesting process," said Shatz, "but I'm quite sure it's not necessary again. What occurred to me was that if we had a qualified candidate from within the department that this would be the ideal way to go."
He pointed out the advantages of continuity and "the benefit of enhanced training and professionalism that we talked about in our statement and someone who lives and is rooted in this part of the world, which I think is important."
Shatz emphasized that Fennelly stood out since he had been elevated to second-in-command, an expression of "confidence in his ability to run the department in the absence of a chief."
He then moved to make the conditional offer, with contract details to be worked out in an executive session next Wednesday.
The motion was seconded by Selectman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, who's also the town's fire chief.
"I think we're on the right track," he said, but he suggested Fennelly serve as a temporary chief for two months "and then move ahead with it. I'm just putting that out as an option so the townspeople might say we're looking into it better."
But Cardillo emphasized that he's "100 percent behind Darrell at this point, I'm just wondering about going that fast."
Shatz told Cardillo that "I understand what you're saying, but I don't regard it as being that fast, given the fact that we made him the second-in-command."
"I think he'll work out well," Cardillo said. "I just don't want the town to [think that] we're just pushing this off the plate."
"It's going to look like that to some people," Shatz conceded. "You know that. There's no way to avoid that."
He cited a phone call from a long-time reserve officer of the department who expressed support "in the strongest terms" for appointing Fennelly as chief, saying "this would further enhance of the morale of the department, which is a matter of concern for this board, certainly. I have absolutely no reservations about doing this."
Shatz also acknowledged that "there's a certain amount of heat that goes with this job, and there's just no way to satisfy some people. The last time, we were criticized for doing a public search, we'll probably be criticized for doing this internally this way. We're just not going to be able to satisfy everyone."
He cited Fennelly's experience and qualifications, adding that "if we were looking for someone from outside the department because there was no one qualified inside, we would want his qualifications. I'm prepared to take the heat."
Gillett and Cardillo, as well as Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden, joined in that sentiment.
"I'm just trying to protect both ends," Cardillo said. "I'm very confident in Darrell and I think we can discuss some changes on how the chief does things, just some odds and ends I can throw out there when we do the contract in executive session. Nothing major, things Darrell would probably be pleased with."
Asked by Gillett how he feels about the job offer, Fennelly responded: "Absolutely, I'm ready to step into this job if it's offered to me, I'll do the best job I can."
Acknowledging "a bit of a learning curve," he emphasized that he had learned much from Eaton and his predecessor, Richard "Rick" Wilcox. "I think if I were appointed to the position, I could try to blend the two styles together a bit," he said.
Fennelly also voiced concern "about some of the things taking place in the town at the moment. I'd like to try to work with the people of the town, to try to heal the rift, if you want to call it that. I have no qualms about accepting the job and being able to do it. I feel very confident."
Some residents questioned Eaton's style and what they viewed as his big-city approach to policing.
Fennelly, a Lee resident, has been on the Stockbridge force since 2008, following eight years in the same full-time role in Becket.
Gillett noted that "we have 30 days to move forward. I would like to have a police chief on the ground, appointed, signed, sealed, delivered, on May 1."
"We would be well-served to appoint someone who's in the department and well-qualified," he added. "I have no question that Darrell's qualified and I also believe he's quite popular among the other officers. I feel very, very comfortable with extending a conditional offer to Darrell at this time, on this day."
Following Cardillo's agreement that "I'm comfortable with it," all three selectmen voted to offer Fennelly the position.
"I'm humbled, thank you," he said.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.