OLD SAYBROOK – The Police Commission voted Monday to ask the town to set aside up to $50,000 for the Police Commission to hire consultants for advice on improving the operations of the police department.
The commission voted 5-2 along party lines to approve the proposal, with all Democrats voting in favor and the two Republican members voting against the proposal.
Wilcox told CT Examiner in an email that the commission would ask consultants to “review the current operations of the department, make suggestions for possible improvements or changes of emphases, and make suggestions for additional (or fewer) points of focus.”
Wilcox said that the impetus was a staffing and structure study of the police department that had been discussed in prior years but never implemented. He also said that he hoped a consultant could help “make maximum use” of data generated by the police department’s new computer assisted dispatch system.
The proposal was originally for $70,000, including $20,000 for legal consultants. But Wilcox said at the meeting that First Selectman Carl Fortuna had agreed to contract with the firm Berchem Moses to work with the commission on amending the town’s bylaws.
In April, the commission passed three new bylaws addressing correspondence to the police commission and public comment during meetings, but rescinded them two months later after advice from attorneys contracted by the town that the new bylaws could open the town to liability.
Wilcox said that Fortuna had indicated to him that the $50,000, which he envisioned as a separate budget for the Police Commission independent of the Police Department’s budget, would need to be considered in the town’s budget process for the next fiscal year, 2023-24.
But Wilcox said he hoped to obtain the funds as soon as possible. He said that he believed that it might be possible for the Police Commission to qualify for some of the funding out of the town’s surplus.
“If we don’t, as a commission, express a desire for it, we don’t get to the plate at all,” said Wilcox.
Fortuna told CT Examiner in an email that it was “unlikely” that any part of the town’s surplus would go toward funding a budget for the police commission.
Commissioner Joseph Masselli said he was uncomfortable with the idea of hiring an outside consultant to look at the police department functions, which he said he viewed as an “end-run-around” that would avoid discussions the commission has had in the past to table a review of department operations while the department was pursuing CALEA accreditation, a national form of accreditation for police departments, which would require a thorough examination of the department.
Masselli also said that he felt bringing on consultants was outside the scope of a Police Commission’s responsibilities.
“We are civilians. We are not supposed to bring to the table a level of expertise beyond being members of our community. That’s what a public elected official is supposed to be,” said Masselli.
But Commissioner Jill Notar-Francesco pushed back that it was precisely because the commissioners were “lay-people” that they should bring in professionals to look at the operations of the department. She noted that the Police Department budget, which the commission is responsible for overseeing, is in excess of $5 million.
Notar-Francesco said the consultant would be available to help if the commission had questions, and that the commission may or may not ultimately use the funds.
“We do need, I believe, some kind of guidance to help make us effective,” said Notar-Francesco. “The chief is wonderful. I would just like some outside perspective and I think that that is not a lot to ask the taxpayers to help fund for us as volunteers in an organization of this size.”
Commissioner Carol Manning agreed.
“I’m not a lawyer. The laws, especially regarding police departments, keep changing,” said Manning. “I’m neither a lawyer nor a policeman. But I want to do my job and I want to do it right.”
Notar-Francesco said she felt $50,000 was a high number, and that the cost could probably be reduced. Chief Michael Spera suggested that before requesting the money, the commission should create an RFP so they could find out exactly how much they would need to budget for consultants.
“I think that you should be part of the fiscal [year] 24 budget process, so it’s transparent and citizens have the right to voice opinions, pro and con,” said Spera. “Whether this is for the police commission or the police department, the community will see it as [the] cost of having a police department in the Town of Old Saybrook.”
Wilcox said in an email that he did not want to ask a consultant to go through the RFP process without the guarantee that there would ultimately be a contract.
Spera also said at the meeting that the commission already had consultants — the town’s finance director and the legal counsel retained by the town.
Commissioner Carl Von Dassel also pushed back against the idea of hiring additional consultants.
“I disagree with asking the town taxpayers to pay more money,” said Von Dassel.
On Monday the commission also voted to form a three-person working group to discuss the creation of an evaluation for Spera. The commission will include Wilcox, Notar-Francesco and either Masselli or Von Dassel.