OLD SAYBROOK — The town’s police commission approved a $5.5 million draft budget for the Department of Police Services, including a scheduled $3,300 increase in Chief Michael Spera’s salary. The vote, which amounted to a 4 percent increase in total spending, came after a lengthy debate about whether that raise should be contingent on a performance evaluation.
“Again, my concern this year is that there is a raise in here for the chief and we have yet to do any kind of an evaluation,” said Commissioner Renee Shippee during a meeting of the commission on Friday. “I find that a little problematic again this year.”
Alfred Wilcox, who chairs the commission, said in a meeting on Monday that the language in the chief’s contract requires an annual performance evaluation in a mutually agreed upon formula.
“It seems to me the sense is pretty clear. An evaluation is mandatory,” said Wilcox.
Commissioner Carl Von Dassel said that while the contract says an evaluation “may be used” when deciding whether to give Spera a raise, an evaluation isn’t a requirement.
“I do think that it might be counterproductive to hold up the chief’s raise because of the ineptness of the commission to have an evaluation. It’s not his fault that we don’t have an evaluation tool,” Von Dassel said on Friday.
According to Von Dassel, since becoming chief in 2009, Spera has never received a performance evaluation.
Wilcox blamed both the police commission and Spera for what he called a “mutual ignoring” of the contract.
Commissioner Joseph Maselli said that although he wasn’t opposed to an evaluation, he felt Spera deserved a raise, saying that Spera had “worked harder than anybody in the town over the past year.”
Commissioner Carol Manning noted that a prior February 26, 2018 vote by the commission agreed to “not grant any future raises to the Chief of Police unless it is based off an evaluation.”
Spera said that this vote was “overruled” in each of the four subsequent fiscal years.
According to Von Dassel, prior commissions had formed two subcommittees, both of which tried and failed to find a suitable format for evaluating the chief of police.
Commissioner Jessica Calle questioned the difficulty of finding a format for evaluating Spera, given that such evaluations are used around the country.
“I have talked to probably 50 or so chiefs, as well as their assistants, and they have all been evaluated,” said Calle.
Manning made a motion to include the salary increase in the budget contingent on Spera completing an evaluation by June 30, 2023. She said that if the chief passed the evaluation — which she said she felt he would— Spera would then be granted the raise as a lump sum at the end of the year.
Finance director Lee Ann Palladino explained that the budget could not include conditions for appropriated funds.
Wilcox said he would prefer to remove the salary increase from the budget entirely. But Maselli said that if the commission decided to take the money out of the budget, but later determined that Spera should receive a raise, the funds wouldn’t be available.
Spera said he would be willing to negotiate a format for his evaluation, but that he should still receive the wage increase included in the budget.
“I’m more than willing to engage in that conversation with the police commission,” said Spera. “I just don’t think I should be penalized because [the evaluation] hasn’t been done in the last two years.”
A motion to remove the wage increase from the budget failed 4-3, with Wilcox, Shippee and Calle voting in favor of eliminating the salary increase.
The commission then voted 5-2 to approve the budget as Spera presented it, with Wilcox and Shippee voting against.
Wilcox said he was disappointed by the outcome of the vote.
“I thought it was really time to hold everybody’s feet to the fire,” he said.
Commissioner Jill Notar-Francesco noted that an evaluation is a “normal practice” that all organizations do.
“I think that, for some reason, there is this great myth … that there’s going to be some ‘gotcha’ to it,’” said Notar-Francesco. “[An] evaluation is not a ‘gotcha,’ but a blueprint for improving.”
The 2.1 percent raise to Spera’s salary, which brings it to $168,111, is a yearly increase given to all department heads for the Town of Old Saybrook.