OLD SAYBROOK — The town’s Police Commission voted to rescind three bylaws adopted at its April meeting that have been the subject of significant criticism by town attorneys. The move came despite continuing support for the changes by most members of the public voicing their opinions and calls for transparency and accountability.
With about 20 members of the public attending in person and an additional 45 attending online, local residents stood and spoke both for and against the police commission’s proposal to remove the two-month old regulations governing public comment, inquiries made to commissioners and guidance for dealing with correspondence.
Selectman Scott Giegrich reiterated that he felt the police commission had a responsibility to follow the advice of the town attorneys.
“The legal opinion from [attorneys] Carson and Tallberg is clear and prescribed,” said Giegrich. “I believe that all elected members to any commission have the responsibility to review and align with the legal opinions provided by the town …members of the police commission cannot egregiously ignore sound legal advice.”
Paul Carver, who spoke as a member of the Board of Finance, said he was concerned about the cost to the town if someone brought a lawsuit against the police commission.
“You asked for an opinion from the town counsel, and he gave you one. You then wanted another opinion and the selectman’s office agreed to let you have another opinion. And we spent thousands of dollars on that opinion. And then you approve the by-laws against those two opinions. And since then, we’ve been told that not only are the by-laws in contrast to state statutes, but it opens us up to liability,” said Carver. “A liability on this board could create a town-wide liability. And in many ways if we get into a litigation circumstance … this could cost the town a lot of money.”
But members of the public felt otherwise.
“I voted because I wanted to have change. I voted because I wanted people to have more transparency,” said resident Bob Gary. “I’m entirely in favor of the bylaw suggestions made by the commission.”
Other residents echoed this, saying that they felt that the elected members of the police commission should represent the desires of the voters.
“The biggest problem in this town is transparency and accountability, and when it comes to the taxpayer and when it comes to the voter, no matter what we vote, Big Brother says no,” said resident Eleanor LaPlace.
Resident John Alice said that he felt the election of the police commission was a demonstration of a “collapse of trust made between the people living in town and the police department.” He said that he felt the bylaws were sound and that there needed to be changes made.
“The people who are now kind of pushing back about this are the very same people who sort of sat on the sidelines for ten years and allowed this sort of situation of distrust to develop,” said Alice.
Another resident, Dan Welsh, said that he had great respect for the police department and had only ever had good interactions with them. But he added that he felt it was “good organizational practice” to have an outside entity responsible for handling complaints because it promotes trust.
Earlier this month, First Selectman Carl Fortuna said in a letter that he expected the police commission to reverse its bylaws at the June meeting, in response to two legal opinions, one by James Tallberg, recommended by the town’s insurance carrier, CERMA, and one by town attorney Michael Cronin. Both attorneys said in their opinions that they were concerned that the new bylaws were not in accordance with Connecticut state law and would open the town to legal liability. Attorney Patrick McHale, the town’s labor counsel, also weighed in on the issue.
“When 3 lawyers come to the same conclusion (Cronin, McHale, Tallberg), I am willing to act in accordance with said opinions,” Fortuna told CT Examiner in an email.
In a response letter, Police Commission Chair Alfred Wilcox said he disagreed with the attorneys’ analyses. He said that he believed the regulations outlined in the Connecticut General Statutes, which required Police Departments to adopt a standard method for dealing with civilian complaints, were created to prevent police departments from making it more difficult for a citizen to file a complaint. Wilcox said he believes these laws have no bearing on Police Commissions’ authority to investigate complaints.
But at the meeting, Wilcox also said that he planned to follow Fortuna’s advice and recommend to the commission that the by-laws be rescinded.
“Although I thoroughly disagree with the analysis by Mr. Cronin and the second attorney Mr. Tallberg, I and my colleagues on the commission wish to cause no anxiety or discomfort to our citizens. We were all elected to serve the entire community and not some subset,” said Wilcox.
Wilcox said that while he planned to rescind the bylaws “for the moment,” he planned to enlist the help of attorney Cronin to help the commission create bylaws that everyone would agree follow the law.
The Commission voted 5-2 to rescind the bylaw that would have given the commissioners the ability to decide whether and when to share correspondence with other members of the commission or with the chief of police. They voted 4-3 to rescind the other two bylaws. One prevented commissioners from being part of a hearing for an officer when they had already expressed prejudgment of the issue and encouraged commissioners to talk with citizens about issues that arise. Another allowed citizens in public comment to discuss the conduct of individual officers as long as those officers were unidentified.
Commission Vice Chair Renee Shippee, who voted against rescinding the bylaws, said that she “didn’t feel comfortable” rescinding the bylaws, especially in light of the comments from the public.
“We have no guarantee from Selectman Fortuna that he’s going to make attorney Cronin commit to sitting with us and going through this,” said Shippee. “He already said in his letter [that] we spent enough time and money.”
She added that she didn’t want to be “bullied” or “intimidated” by threats that the bylaws could open up the commissioners to personal liability.
Commissioner Joseph Masselli, who voted to rescind the by-laws, said he was concerned about the possibility of violating the law.
“We’re supposed to be the police commission. We are supposed to follow the state statutes. And if two opinions say that we’re violating state statutes, then I’m not comfortable,” said Masselli.
The commission will automatically revert to the bylaws that were put in place in November 2020.
The commission also voted unanimously to have Wilcox speak with the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen about whether the Police Commission could have its own budget.
Wilcox initially suggested that the commission request a total of $70,000: $50,000 for consultants and $20,000 for legal fees. He said he wanted it to be a separate budget from the budget allocated to the Police Department.
Police Chief Michael Spera argued against the idea, saying it would add an additional cost to taxpayers for costs relating to the police.
Fortuna told CT Examiner that if the commission wanted to create a budget, it would have to go through the same process as all the other budgets when it was time to create the budget for fiscal year 2024.
At the end of the meeting, Secretary Jill Notar-Francesco said that she was disappointed by the results of the meeting, but hopeful that there would be a way to address these bylaws with attorney Cronin in the future.
“As far as these bylaws are concerned, we worked very hard on this and we spent a lot of time on it,” said Notar-Francesco. “But the first selectmen at their meeting said that they believe there’s a path forward … in changing these bylaws down the road, working with attorney Cronin. And I’m hoping that on the part of the selectmen that those words are not empty.”
Fortuna told CT Examiner that attorney Cronin was the attorney for the Police Commission and would work with the Commission at their request.
A few members of the public also expressed disappointment with the rescinding of the bylaws.
“I am disappointed in rescinding the bylaws based on what I think is sort of questionable legal opinion, but I’m more disappointed in the lack of constructive feedback and partnership from the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance and finding a solution to move us forward, to get us better accountability and better oversight,” said resident Michael Bender.
Fortuna told CT Examiner that the Police Commission “sought no such partnership” with the Board of Selectman and Board of Finance.
Notar-Francesco pointed out that the bylaws did not have to be decided now, echoing the comments of another member of the public, Colin Heffernan.
“You have four years to work at getting to a solution that is what you promised the people of Old Saybrook that you’d get to,” said Heffernan. “So keep plugging away, keep trying. And if you have to overcome an obstacle or overcome a hurdle, do so, and don’t let a hiccup or a bump in the road be discouraging or take you away from that mission, which is the mission that the people of Old Saybrook overwhelmingly agree with.”