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Hartford Has Chief Concern as Some Raise Issue with Police Changes

White River Junction — Residents concerned over the possibility that the town might eliminate its vacant police chief position expressed their worries last night about the implications of such a change and a perceived lack of public discourse surrounding the issue.

Several people joined Glenn Cutting, the former police chief, in a 90-minute back-and-forth with the Selectboard last night that revolved around the idea of a newly-proposed public safety director position, which would oversee the administrative functions of the police and fire departments.

“It just seems like it’s a rush job to run it through,” Cutting said after the discussion. “There’s no urgency here to do anything. They can continue with an interim chief in place, put the money in the budget. I just think the board’s confused.”

Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg, who first proposed the change to the Selectboard at a Dec. 13 budget workshop, said it would save the town at least $90,000 annually, but likely more. He has the power to make the decision unilaterally, but as a matter of practice would be unlikely to move ahead without the support of the Selectboard.

“I understand he has the authority,” said Mike Morris, of White River Junction. “That doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody.”

The occasionally heated discussion began right after the meeting was called to order, as the standard public comment period turned into a forum for several Hartford residents to question the board’s progress on the matter.

The talks briefly focused on numbers, and how a 3 percent drop in property values, coupled with an unforeseen $248,000 increase in health insurance and about $150,000 more in workers’ compensation is squeezing the town’s budget. But that didn’t necessarily placate some residents.

“I wasn’t here to talk about the budget,” Morris said. “I was here to talk about the surprise to the town of Hartford.”

One issue brought up was the board’s decision to go into executive session for a personnel matter during its Dec. 18 meeting. Selectboard Vice Chairman F.X. Flinn said that, during the private session, the conversation surrounding the public safety director was not about whether to put one in place, but how best to get it done as soon as possible.

That prompted Selectman Alex DeFelice to say “I don’t think any decision has been made.”

Selectman Simon Dennis said there was some ambiguity about what actually transpired during the executive session, but he agreed with Flinn’s overall interpretation.

The confusion about what transpired led one person in the audience to make a plea for cooperation.

“Can’t we all just get along?” said Dick Grassi, a former Selectboard chairman and Hartford police officer. “This is unbelievable.”

He added: “This is a major change that you’re proposing.”

One common concern raised by Cutting and others was that whomever heads the police department — even if he or she is only an administrator — should have law enforcement experience. Fire Chief Steve Locke, who is being considered for the role if it opens up, for example, is not a sworn police officer.

“You don’t want to put somebody in there that doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Cutting said.

“You don’t necessarily have to have a gun or a badge strapped to you to be an administrator,” DeFelice replied.

Deputy Chief Leonard Roberts has been serving as interim chief since Cutting resigned in March after five-and-a-half years as Hartford’s police chief. A search for a new chief yielded only about one-third of the expected number of applicants, and ended without a candidate the search committee felt comfortable to head the department.

However, a confluence of budgetary factors led to the public safety director being viable option, according to Rieseberg. Some members of the current Selectboard agreed.

“I’ve kept an open mind; I still have an open mind on it,” said Selectman Sam Romano. “I have some doubts. I think (Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker) had doubts doing it when we first started, and I think he’s willing to give it a chance. And I’m willing to give it a chance and see what happens.”

Grassi, the former Selectboard chairman and police officer, said that he spoke to Rieseberg at length about the plan, and despite the respect he has for him, he vehemently disagrees with the idea.

“I just think he’s flat out wrong in his proposal to take the police department, and insert another layer of administration, and there’s been no public input. That’s been driving me nuts.”

Rieseberg remained largely silent until the end of the evening’s discussion, at which point he said he agreed with many of the points made by the residents, adding that in one or two years there may be some in-house candidates who, with a bit more experience, might be able to take on the police chief mantle.

In the meantime, he said, “there’s not going to be a single thing that’s going to be different” in the department’s day-to-day operations, even if there’s a new, unfamiliar title in place.

“It’s just how we’re going to get from here to there, is the difference,” Rieseberg said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.