STOCKBRIDGE -- The changing of the guard is underway following an official public welcome for the town's designated police chief, Robert M. Eaton, Jr. On Monday night, the Select Board began a transition period leading up to the retirement in late February of Richard "Rick" Wilcox, the chief since 1985.

Following a brief public session Monday night attended by Eaton, Wilcox, consultant Wayne Sampson and the local search committee that narrowed down the initial list of 36 applicants to three finalists, the Select Board went behind closed doors to begin contract negotiations with the prospective new chief.

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While no salary range for the post has been made public, Wilcox was earning $88,400 annually after 41 years on the town's police force. The department of six full-time officers, including the chief, and six part-timers has a budget of about $614,113 a year, Wilcox told The Eagle.

After warmly welcoming Eaton to a round of applause from the gathering of residents at the Town Offices, Select Board Chairman Stephen Shatz added that "we know that we will have the pleasure and the benefit of having Rick Wilcox around this town for years to come."

Shatz expressed deep gratitude to Selectwoman Deborah McMenamy, who chaired the search committee, and to the group's members who were on hand for the meeting.

"You guys all did a great job," Shatz said. "Obviously, it's not easy doing this and I don't know whether you were subjected to any brickbats, I hope not."

Near the end of the search late last month, 82 residents signed a petition urging reconsideration of four Stockbridge officers who had applied for the chief's opening and were included among nine semi-finalists. None of the four made it to the final three.

Despite a few complaints, Shatz went on, "we received an enormous amount of support from people in town about the process."

"I have to admit I was probably more nervous, more anxious about this whole process than Bob Eaton, who was much calmer," Shatz added. "For everyone sitting in this room, it was a very significant challenge to pick a successor to Rick Wilcox. With the public comment and pressure, it raised the stakes."

Sampson, the retired police chief who heads Public Safety Consultants based in Shrewsbury, was singled out for plaudits by the Select Board and the search committee.

"It was very professional, very well-organized, detailed," said McMenamy. "You guided us through a process that we had no idea where we were going to go and how we were going to get there."

"You made it efficient and exact," she told Sampson. "It helped us so much so that we really feel like we have the best candidate for the job. Every qualification that you presented, he rose to the top."

Selectman Charles Gillett also praised Eaton's selection -- "we hired the right guy, I'm very pleased with our choice" -- and also cited favorably the full day of public meetings and a "meet and greet" session with the three finalists held on Nov. 26.

Eaton, 47, is a long-serving captain on the Smithfield, R.I. police force, is also a recent graduate of the FBI National Academy.

In addition to McMenamy, the search committee, all town natives, included Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden; Town Moderator Gary Johnston; former business owner Stephanie Bradford; former teacher Tracy Weston; Richard Bradway, associate director of e-commerce and new media for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and J. Martin Salvadore, retired president of Wheeler & Taylor, Inc.

"When we started the process and got those first bundles of resumes and I started going through those," said Johnston, "I thought, how are we ever going to pick three people out of this whole group."

"There were so many different and what seemed to be very well-qualified candidates," Johnston commented. "Through Wayne's assistance and through the framework he set up for us, we were able to weed out the ones that needed to go first and we ended up with a really good group for the interviews."

"It was very clear to me, using the scoring system we had, that when we came up with the top three candidates, I was completely comfortable," Johnston emphasized. "There was a good reason why Bob and the other two were the last three standing."

Besides Eaton, the two finalists were Matthew Virginia, a former New York City police officer and now a Sandisfield resident serving on the Becket police force, and Sgt. Mark Smith, an 18-year veteran of the Granby department.

"If more people understood the whole process and how involved and exacting it was, there would have been less discussion afterward," Johnston stated. "It was very thorough, and I'm happy to join in welcoming Bob to town, I think he'll be great for Stockbridge. And he does remind me of Rick, he's got that subtle sense of humor."

Virginia, in a letter to the editor published in Sunday's Eagle, commended town officials and residents for the search effort, describing it as "one of the most extensive interview processes in my 24-year law enforcement career from budget and grant management questions to role-playing emergency management scenarios and personnel management styles. It's my opinion that Robert Eaton is extremely qualified and professional and will meet and exceed the expectations placed upon him."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
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