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Tale of two police departments

The aftermath of soured relations between the town of Lyndeborough and former police chief James Basinas is still playing out, as townspeople prepare to vote this month on whether or not to reinstate the police chief position. And it’s the central issue dividing the two candidates for selectmen this year: incumbent Donnie Sawin and former board member Fred Douglas. We can’t help but compare what happened this past year in New Ipswich with its former chief, Garret Chamberlain, and wonder if New Ipswich didn’t come out in a better position than Lyndeborough in the long run.

When Lyndeborough decided to go the route of an officer-in-charge system of police leadership at a Special Town Meeting in 2008, the town had just been engaged in a messy court battle with Basinas, who had been fired by the Select Board in 2007. An officer-in-charge system seemed to offer an alternative to the difficulties the town encountered with Basinas, and the thought was that it would be easier to get rid of an officer-in-charge than it would a police chief, if and when another problem arose.

Though the officer-in-charge position isn’t clearly defined in state statute, there’s still general disagreement about whether or not the same protections afforded a police chief — namely that they cannot be fired without just cause — apply to an officer-in-charge. And the officer-in-charge position hasn’t come without its share of complexities either. Last year, Lyndeborough Town Counsel William Drescher wrote in a letter to the town that having an officer-in-charge rather than a police chief “created an unconventional and administratively complex relationship which had the potential of becoming very awkward to put into practice.” It’s an issue of separation of powers, and there was more than a little confusion about who ran the department during the tenure of former officer-in-charge Tom Burke, who cited the Select Board’s interference as his reason for resigning in June 2012.

Now, the town is facing a lawsuit from Burke and former sergeant Paul Roy, who say they lost their jobs because they were investigating the actions of Select Board member Donnie Sawin. Sawin has said the two officers are at fault for trying to pressure him to resign. The Attorney General’s Office found no criminal behavior on either side in its investigation.

In New Ipswich in 2012 there was talk of regionalization, and former police chief Chamberlain proposed a buyout of his contract. The Select Board agreed to pay him about $175,192 to step down and serve as a consultant during the transition. But the lack of clear leadership led to something of an exodus of officers. When the New Ipswich Select Board learned their neighbors weren’t interested in regionalization, however, the town worked quickly to reestablish the force. A new chief is at the helm and higher pay for officers has been budgeted. And as far as we know, a long and expensive lawsuit isn’t hanging over the town.

We wonder if it’s time the people of Lyndeborough put the past behind them, and make it known they want to reinstate the police chief position. This is what a number of voters are calling for in a petition that’s on the warrant this year. A second petition calls for $7,400 for a police chief hiring process that would include an outside firm to help with the vetting process, as well as a citizen’s panel to interview candidates and review resumes. It sounds like a good investment for an important position the town has had issues with in the past.

One major difference between Lyndeborough and New Ipswich is that New Ipswich paid $175,192 to break a contract because it is so difficult to get rid of a chief. There should be a better way to end the employment of a chief other than holding the taxpayers hostage. That is a lot of money and would have a huge impact on the Lyndeborough tax rate. The state needs to provide a easier way out for the small towns in this state who do not have the financial resources to pay these people off. There is no other profession that would command that kind of payoff.

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