Officer, as citizen, works to pull curtain on Dalton chief's departure
This story has been updated with information from a Select Board meeting held Monday.
DALTON — On a recent stop at Town Hall, Christopher J. Furlong wore civilian clothing, not the uniform he puts on as a Dalton Police Department sergeant.
And on forms he filled out, Furlong listed his home address, his private email and his own phone number. “It’s all done as a private citizen,” he said.
But, Furlong believes he is providing a public service in his quest to unearth what happened inside at least eight Select Board executive sessions that discussed operations of the town’s Police Department.
And now, feeling shortchanged on his requests for public records, Furlong has filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. The Select Board plans to respond at its meeting Monday.
Furlong wants the board to release minutes of private sessions regarding the Police Department, arguing that with the departure of former Chief Jeffrey E. Coe, state law no longer allows the panel to withhold records that speak to his time in office. Furlong has received two sets of minutes so far. The town contends that the reasons cited for going behind closed doors for six meetings remain valid.
Dalton’s police force has been in the news since Coe was put on administrative leave last winter, then departed in June, with more than a year’s pay, after he was cleared of serious errors in an aborted disciplinary process. In May, a senior officer was dismissed for not responding in person to a call.
Furlong says town residents often ask him to explain what’s going with the department.
“They don’t understand why this happened,” he said.
On July 13, two weeks before he was passed over to become interim police chief, Furlong decided the answers could lie in board minutes.
He requested all executive session minutes related to operations of the department, naming Coe and more than a half-dozen other people. “I asked for everything from November all the way to the date of the chief’s settlement,” he said in an interview.
So far, Furlong says, he has received redacted minutes from the board’s executive sessions June 11 and June 18, both of which concerned the terms of Coe’s departure. The records were provided Aug. 31, nearly three weeks after Rebecca S. Murray, the state’s supervisor of public records, ordered Dalton on Aug. 12 to provide a response to Furlong’s July 13 request. He had appealed to Murray’s office after not getting a reply, as is required by state law.
That led him to file his Sept. 8 complaint with the AG’s office, in which Furlong claims the town failed to meet the Open Meeting Law deadlines on responses to public records and neglected to release minutes for other private sessions going back to January.
In its delayed response to Furlong’s July 13 request for records, Dalton said only that the June 11 and June 18 meeting minutes were considered public. The response was signed by Robert W. Bishop Jr., chairman of the Select Board, but drafted by an attorney.
Bishop said the departure of former Town Manager Kenneth Walto, and other staffing issues, slowed release of the records.
“It’s not like we’re ignoring it,” Bishop said of Furlong’s requests. But, he confirmed that the town believes the bulk of the executive sessions can remain secret for now and said that Dalton’s town counsel, Timothy Zessin, is preparing a statement that will be read at Monday’s meeting, which begins at 7 p.m.
“Tim says we’re within our rights not to release them,” Bishop said of minutes from sessions held Jan. 3, Jan. 13 and Jan. 27; May 7 and 14; and June 8.
Furlong’s complaint to the AG’s office contends that earlier discussions of Coe’s performance no longer can be withheld.
“Everything related to Chief Coe should be made available as his case was settled on June 18th,” Furlong wrote in his filing. “You’ve publicly announced his settlement package and the date of settlement. The reasoning behind his departure remains very unclear and you are now withholding that reasoning unnecessarily.”
“The Board made their decision, now it’s time to stand by it in the most transparent manner possible,” he wrote. “Public Record Laws exist to ensure government transparency and are viewable to any citizen. The Board has created an unprecedented level of discontent within itself and the community over the past 9 months.”
Furlong also faults the town for not providing records related to the hiring of an outside investigator to examine allegations against Coe and John Marley, the officer dismissed for not going to the address where a young woman was said to be in distress. The woman later was found dead in what officials have said was a suicide.
Furlong asked, in his request, for “copies of payments made to Alfred Donovan or APD Management for investigating, writing reports and testifying in matters related to Officer John Marley and Chief Jeffrey E. Coe.”
In his response, Bishop said the town has no records that pertain to that request.
Furlong led the Dalton department for months this year as officer in charge, after Coe was put on administrative leave. The board declined July 27 to name Furlong interim chief, as a search for a full-time chief continues. That panel has met twice. The Select Board will be briefed on its progress Monday.
Furlong said his request for documents isn’t driven by disappointment over not getting the interim chief’s post.
Bishop said he questions whether Furlong is acting only in the public’s interest. And he denied that the board secretly has been orchestrating changes within the Police Department.
“I’m not interfering with what they’re doing,” he said. “The department’s got to realize Coe’s not coming back.”
Board member John Boyle, who opposed steps to remove Coe and Marley, said that, like Furlong, he, too, is asked by residents about changes in the department.
“There’s a great concern over what’s going on with the Select Board and the Police Department,” Boyle said. “There wasn’t much information getting out. Certain things have never been made clear by the board."
Even as a member, Boyle said, he never was briefed on why Coe was put on leave. “It’s been totally divisive in the town. It’s divided the town against its government.”
Boyle also questions the process used to redact the June 11 and June 18 meeting minutes released to Furlong, saying that traditionally has been a duty performed by the board itself.
Joseph Diver, the board’s vice chairman, has been a point person on Police Department issues. He declined to discuss Furlong’s complaint before the board responds to it Monday.
Furlong said he plans to stay with the department, where he has worked for two decades, but will not put his name forward as a candidate for chief. Eight of 10 officers had lobbied for him to remain in charge.
“I have no intentions of leaving,” he said of his service on the force.
Furlong says an Aug. 24 message from the town regarding the status of his records request was sent to his work email and copied to Anthony Riello, the interim chief.
Part of the AG’s form he filled out Sept. 8 asks, “What action do you want the public body to take in response to your complaint?”
Release the minutes related to Coe and Marley “in their entirety for examination by the public,” he wrote. “Let the facts be the facts and help reduce the doubt and concern that this board has created.”
And he added, “Refrain from confusing my position with the Dalton Police Department with a request from a citizen exercising their constitutional right. ... Do you normally CC the Chief of Police to all executive session minute requests?”
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
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