The Old Saybrook Police Commission voted on Monday 5-2 to take no action on Chief Michael Spera’s report on employee turnover.
The report is a 144-page document that includes exit interviews and responses from two exercises in which Spera asked current officers and dispatchers how the department could attract and retain employees. In January, the Board of Selectmen asked Spera to provide this information in an effort to better understand why officers were leaving the department at a relatively high rate.
Commissioner Alfred “Chub” Wilcox and Commissioner Renee Shippee, the two dissenting votes, said that they wanted to speak further with the 10 officers whose exit interviews were included in the report.
“The Chief has tried to tell us in advance what is credible and what is not credible,” said Wilcox. “The only way to make our own assessment is to interview these people.”
Wilcox said that since turnover is a concern for police departments across the country, the department should do everything it can to avoid aggravating the problem. For example, Wilcox said, he saw several themes in the exit interviews that the department could address, such as employees feeling micromanaged and complaints about being called into work at the last minute.
Shippee said she didn’t understand why the commission had decided not to interview William Bergantino, a former officer who sent a letter to the commission asking them to open a formal investigation and offering to speak with them as part of the process. She also said she didn’t understand why they hadn’t interviewed Justin Hanna, an officer who left the department in March of 2021.
The other commissioners disagreed. Commissioner Joseph Maselli said that the idea of interviewing former officers was “past business” that the commission had already decided against. Commissioner Susan Quish said she found the report very thorough and said it provided “a really candid view into the workings of the Old Saybrook Police Department.”
“It supports the fact that the OSPD is not unique in their experience,” said Quish. “Turnover is the cost of doing business.”
Commission Chair Frank Keeney agreed that the report was thorough, and also compared the situation to a corporate setting.
“We’re the board of directors, the chief is our [Chief Executive Officer],” he said.
Spera brought forward his own ideas about ways that the department could address the problem of turnover. In a letter dated May 17, he asked the commission to support a proposal to increase the annual pay for certified police officers who come to the department with three or more years of experience from $63,865 to $78,943, the highest rate of pay for a patrolman in the department.
He also asked that they support granting officers with five or more years of experience 16 vacation days per year, as opposed to the 11 offered to new police officers.
“I want to be an attractive agency that tenured officers are looking toward,” said Spera, adding that the majority of officers who leave an agency leave at the five-year mark.
Spera said in his letter that the proposal would not increase the cost to the town.
The increase in vacation days would have to come through an agreement with the labor union. Spera said he wasn’t sure if increasing the pay rate would also have to be evaluated within the framework of the collected bargaining agreement, and said he would seek out labor counsel to make sure.
He said he was not interested in hiring officers transferring from other agencies who had less than three years of experience.
Spera said that with the commission’s approval he would approach the first selectman and the labor union with his proposals.
“I would imagine that everyone involved sees this as a reasonable and rational proposal that just makes a lot of sense,” said Spera.
The Commission approved the proposal 7-0.
“Negativity” and “Bickering”
At the end of the meeting, Spera spoke directly to Wilcox and Shippee, telling them that they needed to “lower the temperature” and “stop the negativity.”
“If I’m a prospective employee … and I watch the fighting on the fourth Monday of every month, it doesn’t look like an attractive place to work,” he said.
Other commissioners expressed frustration with the “bickering” between commissioners. Commissioner Carl Von Dassel said that they “just seemed to be stagnant” and Keeney said he wanted to stop revisiting the same issues over and over.
Keeney also said that, at the request of Wilcox, he had gotten in touch with Tom Hennick, the public education officer at the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. According to Keeney, Hennick said that the commission could speak to the department about lawsuits involving the Old Saybrook Police Department. He asked Wilcox, Quish and Spera to accompany him to speak with the first selectman.
Keeney also said that the commission will have a presentation on off-budget accounts at their next meeting on June 28.