OLD SAYBROOK — The town’s police commission has decided not to take action on a complaint from a former sergeant in the Old Saybrook Police Department who requested in a letter that the commission investigate what he called a “toxic and hostile work environment.”
The commission voted 5-2 to not take action on the complaint, with commissioners Renee Shippee and Alfred Wilcox providing the dissenting votes.
Officer William Bergantino, who authored the letter, began working at the Old Saybrook Police Department in 1997, and remained there for 23 years. In 2019, Bergantino moved to another department, taking a reduction in pay and a penalty toward his pension, he said, because of a negative work environment in Old Saybrook.
“When I advocated for myself, fellow employees, or citizens, I suffered negative consequences for doing so,” wrote Bergantino. “I felt that for my mental and physical well-being, I needed to leave the agency.”
Bergantino said that this environment was “created and propagated by Chief Michael Spera.”
A discussion behind closed doors
The commission discussed the letter out of public view in an executive session — something that open meeting laws in Connecticut allow for only in limited circumstances.
In an email to Connecticut Examiner, the chairman of the Police Commission Frank Keeney wrote that the executive session took place “in accordance with Connecticut General Statutes Section 1-200(6), which allows a public agency to discuss the employment and performance of a public employee in executive session, provided the employee does not want the agency to hold the discussion in public.”
The public employee in question, said Keeney, was Spera.
Asked about the use of executive session, Tom Hennick, the public education officer at the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said that while the commission was allowed to discuss personnel issues in executive session, the explanation in the agenda was not sufficient to meet the statutory requirements. Hennick said the commission needed to specify the nature of the personnel matter, saying, for example, that it was to discuss “the behavior of an officer” or “the chief of police.”
“Their mistake was not doing that,” he said.
Wilcox told CT Examiner that he disagreed with the decision to discuss the issue in an executive session. He said the letter was less about the chief himself and more about the toxic environment at the police station.
“I would think that this is something the public has a legitimate interest in,” said Wilcox.
A call for a formal investigation
In his letter, Bergantino asked that the commission open a formal investigation into the Old Saybrook Police Department.
“I wanted to make you aware that I am willing to speak as part of such a process,” he said. “I feel such an investigation is necessary for the issues to be brought to light.”
Bergantino added that he had spoken to a number of other police officers who had left the department, and who would also be willing to speak with the town as part of an investigation.
In an email to Connecticut Examiner, Keeney explained the commission’s reasoning for declining to take action.
“The sender of the letter had separated from employment with the Department 18 months ago and, as an officer in the Police Union, had ample opportunity while he was employed to raise any concerns of a hostile work environment but did not do so,” wrote Keeney.
“He filed grievances challenging other actions by the Department but never claimed that there existed a toxic work environment. The former employee was also invited to provide the Department with a written exit interview after he announced his separation, but he declined to provide any information regarding his experiences working in the Police Department,” Keeney explained.
Wilcox, however, said he thinks the complaint merits further investigation, especially in light of the two other officers who spoke out in December about alleged problems in the Old Saybrook Police Department.
A public document concerning turnover
First Selectman Carl Fortuna told CT Examiner in a statement that he was sorry the sergeant had a negative experience in Old Saybrook, but he also understood that people leave workplaces.
“People leave their jobs for many reasons; to have better career opportunities, to be closer to home, to enjoy retirement and yes, some do not like their boss. That is true in every profession in all walks of life and I have no doubt it is true in the OSPD,” wrote Fortuna.
At the same time, Fortuna urged the Police Commission to take a closer look at turnover at the department.
In a letter to the commission, dated January 12, the Board of Selectmen requested that the Police Commission “undertake an examination of the issue of past turnover of sworn personnel during Chief Michael A. Spera’s tenure.”
The selectmen asked that Spera create a public document listing the sworn personnel who have left the department, the length of their tenure and their reasons for having left. The document should include exit interviews and other relevant information.
According to the letter, 32 police officers have left the department since 2009 when Spera became the chief of police.
“I am hopeful over the next few months, the police commission will investigate this issue and issue an appropriate public response to our taxpayers, who deserve to know the facts,” Fortuna wrote CT Examiner.
The July 12 letter also asked the commission to add the request to the agenda for their next meeting, which is currently scheduled for January 25 at 6 p.m..