Hartford Considers Police and Fire Chief Changes
Hartford firefighter Steve Locke, left, hugs Hartford Fire Chief Mark Miller before leaving Lebanon Municipal Airport for Atlanta in September 2005. Locke and fellow Hartford firefighter Ray Bushey spent a month on the Gulf Coast to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hunter Rieseberg Purchase photo reprints »
Hartford Police Chief Glenn Cutting, shown in his office in March, before he left the position after six years in the job. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Valley News - Jason Johns Purchase photo reprints »
Steve Locke, left, exchanges a parting hug with Hartford Fire Chief Mark Miller before leaving Lebanon Municipal Airport for Atlanta in September 2005. Locke and fellow Hartford firefighter Ray Bushey will spend one month on the Gulf Coast to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »
Hartford Police Chief Glenn Cutting, shown in his office last March, before he left the position after six years in the job. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hartford — The town’s budget crunch may lead to the elimination of the vacant police chief position in favor of having one person head both the police and fire departments.
A newly created “public safety director,” as Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg explained to the Selectboard last month, would oversee the administrative side of Hartford’s police and fire departments by working with budgets, setting departmental policies and providing centralized leadership.
And the job would most likely go to fire department Chief Steve Locke, according to Selectboard members with knowledge of the situation, even though he doesn’t have any police experience. Rieseberg, as the town’s top administrative officer and the person to whom the chiefs of the police and fire departments report, is entitled to structure the offices as he sees best.
Rieseberg did not confirm that Locke would be appointed to the role, though he agreed Locke “might be a good choice.”
Several town officials said last week that the Selectboard is willing to go along — at least on a trial basis — with Rieseberg’s proposal.
The impetus for the change is largely financial, supporters said. This year’s budget has to take into account a 3 percent decline in the town’s property values and health insurance premiums that shot up $235,000.
Rieseberg estimated that the consolidation of departmental functions under a single person would save roughly $90,000 annually.
“We are facing some extraordinary challenges, and I think this makes a good contribution to help us respond to these new financial challenges,” Rieseberg said. “I don’t see it as a big change, to tell you the truth,” he added.
But the proposal also comes after Hartford conducted an unsuccessful search to replace former Police Chief Glenn Cutting, and as the town and police department are being sued by Wayne Burwell, a Wilder man who in 2010 was pepper-sprayed and beaten by Hartford police inside his home.
Cutting, who resigned from his post at the end of March, spoke to Selectboard members after last month’s budget workshops, saying he feared it would be too big a change for Hartford’s police force, which includes 22 authorized police positions.
Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said it has not yet been officially decided to consolidate the administrative functions of both the police and fire departments under a public safety director — there are budget workshops set for Tuesday and Thursday, during which the board could change funding levels to kill the role before it begins — but he hasn’t seen any notable opposition on the board’s part.
“At this stage it seems to be something that’s moving forward,” Parker said.
According to Selectboard Vice Chairman F.X. Flinn, it is “definitely happening.”
If Locke is selected as the new the public safety director, he would become the third in the state of Vermont — only Bennington and Barre use the model.
Under Rieseberg’s plan, the public safety director would supervise two police department administrators: one who would deal with internal administrative activities, and one who would deal with patrol and uniformed staff.
Locke said he is up to the task if chosen.
“I think my time as a fire chief allows me to be qualified and to serve administrative functions, which I believe the primary responsibility will be,” he said.
The public safety director, however, would not be a deputized officer permitted to wear a badge or carry a gun. Nor would the individual rush to crime scenes or have arrest powers.
Locke’s lack of police experience initially gave Parker pause. But he said that concern was resolved when he had more time to learn the actual role of the public safety director.
Now, he said, the Selectboard is willing to give it a try.
Flinn agreed. “He may not have direct experience as a police officer,” he said, “but he’s got an enormous amount of experience in emergency services and he’s worked closely with police with his entire career.”
Frederick Peyton, president of the officers’ union, did not return a request for comment.
In Barre and Bennington, the departmental shuffling went in the opposite direction. About three years ago, both the city and the town named their police chiefs to lead the police and fire departments.
Bennington made the move to public safety director to unite a full-time police force with a volunteer fire department. Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the move has been successful, even if it took a while for the two departments, which are prone to the usual turf wars, to see eye-to-eye.
“Over the years, I think it’s become very positive for Bennington,” Hurd said.
Barre, on the other hand, created the position to save money in the wake of a resigning fire chief. State Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, who has served on the City Council since before the change, said the city saved about $60,000.
But the police chief who became public safety director, Tim Bombardier, is a former state trooper who worked as an arson investigator, which Poirier said gives him the ability to lead both departments, even if his role ostensibly is administrative. When there’s a major fire, Bombardier can go to the scene and take command, Poirier said.
“In our situation, we had the person that made it easy for us to make this change,” he said. “I probably would have been nervous about it if we didn’t have that person.”
Some of that trepidation has hit Hartford, as well. Cutting worried that a police department without a dedicated chief would have trouble staying on top of events, especially considering Hartford handles 10,000 cases a year.
Also, he’s not persuaded that town residents would get behind the public safety director idea — Hartford has had a police chief for the past 50 years — and said there should be more of a public discussion.
“To not have a police chief is one thing,” he said, “but it should be debated, it should be discussed, it should be public.”
A search for a new chief following Cutting’s retirement left the town empty-handed — there were no long-term candidates, Rieseberg said, and the police department needs continuity.
“I know that he feels like we should set up a big public hearing, and tell everybody about it and go through a decision-making process that would, in (Cutting’s) mind, result in the town basically telling the Selectboard and the town manager that they wanted a police chief,” said Flinn, who exchanged emails with Cutting after Rieseberg first floated the idea to the Selectboard. “And the town may wind up telling us that. But I don’t think they will once we’ve given this a shot.”
Parker said he expected plenty of discussion over the issue, along with other tabled items from previous budget workshops, during the meeting s on Tuesday and Thursday. He agreed that there hasn’t been enough discussion yet, but there’s plenty more on the way.
“I think that there will be debate about it because the issue is still there, very prominently,” he said.
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Thursday, Jan. 10 edition of the Valley News:
The Hartford Police Department has 22 authorized police positions. A story in the Sunday Valley News and an editorial on Tuesday misstated the total number of sworn positions.