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Jim Kenyon: Giving Him the Business

Dave Ring has operated a car repair shop in his hometown of Hartford for 30 years. A few years ago, Ring was asked if he’d be interested in handling maintenance and repairs for the town’s fleet of 10 or so police cruisers.

Sure, he said. Ring offered to do the work for $30 an hour — less than half his regular rate. Ring, 61, figured it was a good deal for him as well. He’d have more work for his seven mechanics. And if people saw that the police department trusted him with its cruisers, it could attract new customers to his Tip Top Tire shop.

Ring didn’t have a contract with the town. “A handshake was good enough for me,” he said.

In 2012, Ring was paid $14,374 for police vehicle repairs and parts, according to town records. Then early this year, Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail stopped by Ring’s garage off Sykes Mountain Avenue. Sorry, he told Ring. The police department was going to stop doing business with him.

After hearing through the Hartford grapevine recently that the town had given him the heave-ho, I called Ring.

So what happened?

“I wasn’t given a reason,” he said. But he has his suspicions.

Last January, Ring attended a Hartford Selectboard meeting. He rarely speaks out at public forums, but he was concerned about the direction the town was headed in finding a new police chief.

A national search had failed to come up with a replacement for Glenn Cutting, who had retired in April 2012. Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg was floating the idea of promoting Fire Chief Steve Locke to a newly created position. As public safety director, Locke would oversee both departments.

Last week, I watched the CATV video of that Selectboard meeting. Ring talked for all of 90 seconds. “Steve (Locke) does a good job in the fire department,” he said. But putting Locke in charge of the cops, or hiring an outsider, would be the “wrong thing to do,” Ring added.

Ring supported veteran Hartford police officer Lenny Roberts, who had served as interim chief following Cutting’s retirement. “Lenny has been around a long time,” said Ring. “He’s very capable.”

It wasn’t long after the meeting (Ring recalls it being about a week) that Vail showed up at Tip Top Tire.

Were town officials punishing Ring for opposing their police plans? I’m not sure. But I think it’s enough to give small business owners around town pause. After seeing what happened to Ring, they have to wonder: If I speak out, could it end up costing me?

Ring hasn’t talked with Rieseberg. “I’d hate to think that he’d hold it against me for going down there and speaking my mind,” Ring told me.

I asked Rieseberg. Nothing could be further from the truth, he said. Getting rid of Ring wasn’t even his idea. Locke, who took over as public safety director in early February, assured me that it was his decision. He did, though, run it by “the boss,” as he calls Rieseberg.

I asked Locke about the timing: Ring speaks up at a Selectboard meeting and shortly thereafter he’s no longer doing police work. “It may look like it on the face, but one had nothing to do with the other,” Locke said. “There was certainly no malice.”

Cutting was surprised that Hartford no longer had use for Ring’s services. “It was a really good working system,” he said. “(Ring) had mechanics who worked six days a week. There was never an issue of competence or the ability to get the work done quickly.”

When Cutting became chief in 2006, Hartford had a mechanic on the town payroll who repaired fire trucks and police vehicles. After the mechanic retired, he wasn’t replaced. The fire department started using the town’s sole remaining mechanic at the highway garage. Paul Saucier, the town’s fleet manager and large vehicle mechanic, has 20 years of experience.

Sharing a mechanic with the highway and fire departments “wasn’t going to work for us,” said Cutting, noting that the police department puts 50,000 miles a year on each of its Ford cruisers. “Our vehicles were on the road seven days a week. We needed to find another solution.”

Cutting shopped around for a garage to make repairs not covered under the cruisers’ extended warranties. He was familiar with Ring’s work. (The Windsor County Sheriff’s Department and the Woodstock Police Department are Tip Top customers.) And along with several other Hartford officers, Cutting sent his personal vehicles to Ring for maintenance and repairs. Locke also uses Ring to service his personal pickup truck.

Locke said he had no complaints with the work that Ring did for the police department. He just preferred to bring regular maintenance, such as oil changes, and repairs “in-house.” The town also took its tire business away from Ring. Pete’s Tire Barn, a Massachusetts company with a shop in Hartford, now does tire changes.

Locke hasn’t crunched the numbers to determine how much money the town is saving. Unless Saucier was just sitting around like the Maytag repairman (which I doubt), I wondered how he could suddenly be expected to take on maintaining 10 additional vehicles. “He was busy,” Locke said, “now he’s just busier.”

Saucier, who earns $26 an hour, plus benefits, told me he can handle it. I hope that’s the case. Last month, the quarterly safety checks that Saucier performs on Hartford’s fire trucks had to be put off for a couple of weeks until he could find time, Locke said.

It’s probably too early to tell if parting ways with Ring will work to the town’s benefit. But under the circumstances, intentional or not, it sends the message that speaking your mind in Hartford can be hazardous to your wallet.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.