SANDISFIELD — Some say the hiring of the former part-time Sandisfield Police officer to be the town's new public safety officer was clouded by favoritism.
Others scoff at accusations that Michael Johnson's lone application means he was a shoo-in from the start. They say it's hard to find someone in the area who can fill the unique position, and that Johnson, 50, is a perfect fit.
Johnson was hired last month, after voters at annual town meeting in May approved the new, $56,000-a-year, full-time position, thought to be the first of its kind in the state.
His continued employment is dependent on a performance review due Jan. 15, and he will be on probation until then.
The role aims to close the gap for daytime emergency responder shortages that town officials say have compromised the town's ambulance service response times, and threatened its state certification to have the service. State law requires two EMTs for medical calls where an ambulance is used. Until now, only Fire Chief Ralph Morrison consistently was available for daytime calls.
The new role also is considered the most economical way to address daytime emergency volunteer shortages, since contracting with an outside ambulance agency is exorbitant, town officials say.
Johnson, who has held the part-time police officer job for two years, now will be on call from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. as an EMT responding to fire and police calls.
But Johnson's history with Monterey and his active federal discrimination lawsuit against that town and its officials has troubled some. Others allege favoritism — that the job was created knowing Johnson was the only person in the area who could fill it.
An article in The Sandisfield Times took aim at what it says are the town's inconsistent hiring practices, noting that Johnson was the only candidate to apply, and that no references were sought by the Select Board. Resumes were rerouted to the police chief rather than the Select Board, the article says, and advertising for the position wasn't as aggressive as it was for the recent hiring of the highway superintendent.
But Town Police Chief Michael Morrison said that references weren't needed in Johnson's case because he already had worked for the town.
Morrison also says that the position was advertised like all other positions, and that Johnson was the only applicant because of the nature of the new job.
"It's a very unique position, and we had to find someone who can fill all three," he said. "I have no idea what The Times is talking about. We advertised the job. One application came in."
He further said that Johnson's hiring after a two-month search was "completely" the purview of the Select Board.
Select Board minutes show that, at its July 18 meeting, concerns were raised about Johnson being the only applicant, but the minutes do not say who raised these concerns.
The minutes also revealed concerns by Select Board member Brian O'Rourke, who said that some residents have told him that "Mr. Johnson has at times been over-zealous or aggressive in his dealings with citizens. Mr. Johnson responded that in a confrontation with a citizen, the police officer needs to be in control. He was trained to deal with situations by escalating, de-escalating and explaining."
But O'Rourke also pointed out that Johnson essentially had been doing the public safety officer work all along in his role as police officer without pay or recognition.
Johnson could not be reached for comment. Board member George Riley said he could not comment.
Riley previously had told The Times that, as far as he knew, board members did not contact Johnson's previous employers, but that his history in Monterey was well known through press coverage.
Johnson worked in the Monterey Police Department from 2009 to 2017, where he eventually was made sergeant. When town officials did not reappoint him as a full-time officer, he filed a suit alleging civil rights violations and retaliation for what he said were critical comments he made about the Select Board during an unsuccessful campaign for election to that board in 2016.
Johnson also claims that the town denied him unemployment benefits and medical insurance to which he was entitled.
Johnson, a native of Charlemont, served in the Navy and began his law enforcement career in Franklin County. He has been a certified EMT for 37 years, according to The Times.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.