Former Stockbridge police chief decries effort to weaken post
STOCKBRIDGE — The town's widely admired retired police chief is opposing a citizens petition seeking to weaken the supervisory powers of the position by giving the Select Board more authority over the department's day to day operations.
The petition appears as Article 30 on the Annual Town Meeting warrant for this Monday evening.
Former Chief Richard "Rick" Wilcox said the intent of the so-called "strong chief" state law passed in 1948 was "to remove 'politics' from municipal police departments, allowing a more professional police chief to do his or her job while the Board of Selectmen would maintain its role as policy maker whose oversight would ensure the police department was kept on the straight and narrow."
Local towns have the choice of approving that law or keeping the previous weak chief provision of the Massachusetts General Laws. In 1997, annual town meeting voters in Stockbridge approved the shift to the strong chief approach.
The petition was filed with the Select Board on Feb. 22 following a prolonged period of public controversy over former Police Chief Robert Eaton's more formal style of policing. Eaton resigned as of April 30 to move to a chief's position in the larger community of Townsend near Fitchburg.
He emphasized that his departure was unrelated to the concerns voiced by some citizens over his approach to the job. Before leaving, Eaton was highly praised by the Select Board for professionalizing the department.
Eaton was succeeded by his second-in-command, Sgt. Darrell Fennelly, appointed by the Select Board with a three-year contract.
Wilcox, outlining his position in a letter to the editor, stated that the biggest reason for keeping the "strong chief" law "is that anyone worth their salt seeking employment with the town who found out that [it] was not in place would run the other way, knowing it to be a town living in the 19th century that wants to get its fingers into the day to day operation of the department, a surefire formula for disaster."
The retired chief added: "Imagine living in a town where the Board of Selectmen could determine the staffing of shifts, training requirement, compliance with laws governing the operation of a professional department, etc. Towns which have not adopted the strong chief model, and there are few remaining, reflect towns in political turmoil."
At the Annual Town Meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, a voter would need to second the warrant article containing the petition, which could be amended or withdrawn. Approval would require a simple majority.
According to Wilcox, who retired in February 2014 after 46 years on the police force, 29 of them as chief, "a strong chief only refers to his or her responsibilities and professionalism and is not about the fear of a chief's independence from accountability to the Board of Selectmen and townspeople."
He said all chiefs are subject to dismissal for cause after a hearing.
"I would always shake my head when people would comment on how much power the chief of police has," he said. "I never felt I had any power, only a tremendous amount of responsibility."
In his view, "power to create, and keep on an even keel, a police department that reflects the culture and personality of the town lies within the voters and their representatives, the Board of Selectmen."
Local activist John Hart, one of the citizens who signed the petition, said on Wednesday that he's on the fence about whether it should go forward during the town meeting.
He acknowledged that the petition drive was fueled by concern over former chief Eaton's approach to the job. However, he noted, those concerns don't apply to Fennelly, the new chief.
Wilcox, who has maintained a relatively low profile since retiring, wrote that he would "encourage the town to be more concerned with the individual strengths of their public safety officials including such things as personality, political and diplomatic skills, vision, professional competence and leadership ability."
Under the strong chief provision of the state law, 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 assigns to the Select 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."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
The following appears as Article 30 of the 34-article Annual Town Meeting warrant for Monday night's meeting:
"To see if the Town will vote to rescind the vote taken under Article 32 of the Annual Town Meeting of May 19, 1997, to accept the provisions of M.G.L. c. 41, 97A (the "Strong" Police Chief Statute) and instead to accept the provisions of M.G.L. 97 (the "Weak" Police Chief Statute); or to take any other action in relation thereto."
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