Ex-police chief sues Otis, saying ouster was retaliation

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OTIS — Former Police Chief Roberta Sarnacki has filed a lawsuit against the town, claiming that the Select Board improperly ousted her in retaliation for her decision to prosecute the member of a prominent local family.

In the lawsuit, filed Nov. 1 in Berkshire Superior Court, Sarnacki is asking the town for $45,000 in lost wages and benefits, $135,000 for the retaliatory discharge, and other damages. She also asks to be reinstated as police chief.

Sarnacki was told in June that the board voted not to reappoint her for the next fiscal year, which began the next month.

She believes that she was let go because Select Board Chairman William Hiller was unhappy with her decision to prosecute a friend's son for allegedly fleeing an officer in August 2017. Hiller had asked Sarnacki to drop charges in exchange for the family not suing her, which she declined to do, according to her complaint.

"The juvenile's family was close to Hiller, both personally and in business," the suit alleges. "[Sarnacki] advised Hiller that she believed that his conduct in making the said request, was in her view a violation of law and a risk to public health and/or safety."

Under state law, towns must give municipal employees working without a contract a year's notice of their decision not to reappoint.

Sarnacki first was appointed in 2009, and later was granted a one-year contract, which was never renewed, according to attorney Mitchell Greenwald, who drafted the complaint.

"Although she raised with [the town] the possibility of working under a new written employment agreement," the suit alleges, "[the town] declined to offer her a new employment agreement, and the prior agreement expired by its own terms on June 30, 2011."

Jeremiah Pollard, the town's attorney, previously has said there was a contract in place at the time the vote was made. Town Administrator Rebecca Stone didn't return calls or emails seeking comment.

Greenwald said he believed Sarnacki and a different attorney had been in discussion with the town before the suit was officially filed in court, but a settlement had not been reached.

The incident referenced in the suit dates to August 2017, when police began investigating the teenager suspected of operating a dirt bike in town without a license and failing to stop for an officer.

Sarnacki met with the teenager's father and agreed not to charge him in court if he wrote an apology letter. The teenager's father and a family friend, in a legal claim of malicious prosecution made against the town, said that Sarnacki had agreed not to prosecute him if he wrote an apology letter.

But, that claim said, the chief was unhappy with the wording of the letter, and she instead used it as a "confession," and charged him in juvenile court. The authors of the claim also were charged amid allegations that they tried to cover up the crime.

Sarnacki has said she never wanted to charge the teenager; rather, she wanted him to participate in community service, when he declined to take responsibility for his actions. When he didn't, and the adults in his life allegedly tried to cover up the crime, she felt compelled to go through with the charges.

On Sept. 6, Sarnacki, after filing the charges in juvenile court, issued a notice of revocation of his firearms identification card. The adults, Michael O'Brien and William Hyland, were charged with offenses related to covering up a crime.

But hose charges were dismissed upon a clerk-magistrate's hearing because those charges are only applicable with felony crimes, which the teen was not facing at the time.

When the men and the juvenile filed the claim of malicious prosecution, the town settled it out of court for $45,000, which was paid through insurance.

Sarnacki has said that her prosecution was appropriate.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.

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