Please support the Valley News during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the local economy — and many of the advertisers who support our work — to a near standstill. During this unprecedented challenge, we continue to make our coronavirus coverage free to everyone at www.vnews.com/coronavirus because we feel our most critical mission is to deliver vital information to our communities.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, we are asking for your support. Please consider subscribing or making a donation today. Learn more at the links below.

Thank you for your support of the Valley News.

Dan McClory, publisher


Jim Kenyon: Thetford police chief put on leave behind a veil of town government secrecy

  • Thetford, Vt., Police Chief Michael Evans speaks during Town Meeting in Thetford, Vt., on Feb. 27, 2016.(Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/23/2020 9:33:37 PM
Modified: 6/23/2020 9:33:35 PM

It appears Thetford Police Chief Mike Evans is about to get much of the summer off. But not by choice.

Town Manager Guy Scaife announced at Monday’s Selectboard Zoom meeting that he was placing Evans, the chief since 2015, on paid administrative leave.

No reason was given, which is the Vermont way.

When it comes to personnel matters, Vermont’s public officials rarely have to explain their actions. They get to hide behind state laws that are supposedly in place to protect (or overprotect, I’d argue) public workers.

Sometimes, these laws muzzle public officials themselves, preventing them from speaking out even if they wanted to.

But either way, the law also conveniently allows the people in charge — in this case, Scaife and the town’s five Selectboard members — to avoid transparency.

No matter what, the public loses. Taxpayers get left in the dark and stuck with the bill. (Evans’ annual salary of $76,800 works out to nearly $1,500 a week.)

The secrecy is a disservice to Evans, who has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years, as well. The public is left to wonder — and gossip — about what Evans has allegedly done that would justify Scaife — with the board’s support — demanding that he turn in his gun and badge indefinitely. Evans has also been told that he must stay off town property.

The circumstances that led to Evans, 51, being placed on paid leave is “not something I can entertain questions on,” Scaife said during Monday’s meeting, which was streamed online.

Later, Scaife said the “state is involved” and he wouldn’t be surprised if it took six weeks or so to resolve the matter. “I do know it will not be quick,” he said.

On Tuesday, I reached Evans by phone. He’s been in contact with a labor attorney, so it was probably best that he didn’t say a lot, he told me.

But, particularly in today’s highly charged climate around policing wrongdoing, he wanted people to know he wasn’t suspended for alleged criminal activity.

Evans told me he was being punished (my word, not his) for “insubordination.” From what I’ve gathered, Evans and Scaife have been locked in a disagreement about whether Thetford needs two full-time police officers.

Thetford’s patrol officers, Stuart Rogers and Michael Scruggs, are members of the New England Police Benevolent Associations Local 403.

On May 27, the union informed the Selectboard that Scaife was proposing cutting officers’ hours. One scenario had their average workweek going from 42 to 30 hours. They’d still be eligible for benefits, such as health insurance. The union claims that Scaife is unfairly targeting police and has “created a hostile work environment.”

Scaife responded that due to the economic hardships brought on by COVID-19, “many Thetford taxpayers have lost their jobs and will have trouble paying their property taxes in the months to come. Given this financial crisis, the town has no choice but to strategically reduce municipal services to reduce the burden our taxpayers face.”

The decision about what to do, if anything, with the police department hasn’t been finalized, Selectboard Chairman Nick Clark said during Monday’s meeting.

I’m glad that Scaife is scrutinizing police funding. With the pandemic squeezing municipal budgets and the growing national debate about how much policing is needed in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, every community should be doing the same.

But Evans also has the right to take his case for keeping two full-time officers to the public without fear of retribution from his boss.

Records associated with the union’s grievance against the town indicate that Evans objected to Scaife not allowing his officers to attend a closed-door Selectbord meeting over the potential cuts. The entirety of the May 25 meeting should have been open to the public, Evans argued.

The town manager “doesn’t want the public to get involved,” Evans told me. “He wants to silence dissenters.”

And now Evans, who worked as a police officer in Hanover for 24 years before coming to Thetford, finds his job in jeopardy.

After Scaife’s surprise announcement Monday, several Thetford residents in the meeting praised Evans for his community-policing approach. “He’s always out on the road,” one person said.

Evans also receives high marks for not always dealing with teenagers in a “punitive way.”

While not speaking ill of Evans, the Selectboard clearly has Scaife’s back.

“Guy was not out there acting as a lone wolf on this,” Clark said during the meeting. “We were in the know about things go on. An issue was raised and we need to look into it.”

As I wrote at the time of Scaife’s hiring in January, he’s no stranger to controversy. In December 2017, after 15 months on the job, he was fired as city manager in Meriden, Conn., pop. 60,000.

When the matter came up in Thetford, Scaife said he was fired for uncovering wrongdoing by the city’s finance director. The Associated Press reported that Scaife had brought the claims to the Meriden City Council, but it didn’t vote to fire the finance director, who denied Scaife’s allegations.

After Scaife’s dismissal, the city council’s majority leader told the media it was spurred by “escalating discord.”

In 2018, Scaife filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Meriden for breach of contract; the lawsuit is still ongoing.

In the months before his firing, federal court documents describe how Scaife became concerned about a “continuous leak” of information, including negative emails about him, to the city’s daily newspaper, the Record-Journal.

Scaife instructed Meriden’s information technology director to search the city’s email server for recent emails to the newspaper in an “effort to find the source of the leaks,” according to the lawsuit. The review discovered that at “least one source of the leaks” was a city councilor who was among Scaife’s chief critics.

In January, Scaife was hired as Thetford’s interim town manager, replacing Serena Bemis-Goodall, who left town after only five months.

With Scaife’s six-month contract close to expiring, the board voted unanimously Monday night to offer him a new three-year deal. Under the proposed contract, Scaife, who was 69 at the time of his hiring, will earn $96,000 annually, but will forgo insurance benefits.

Some residents wanted the board to delay the contract vote until they could learn more about what’s behind Evans’ paid leave, or whether the chief will be back at all.

“It may never be that the public gets an answer that it will be happy with,” Clark said. “It might be a situation that we can’t talk about as much as we would like. ”

Board member Steven Tofel added, the “Selectboard is privileged to things we can’t talk about.”

And that’s the problem in Vermont. Too much and too often, the public’s business is done in secret.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2019 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy