February 28. 2013 11:21PM

Atkinson officials say chief's retirement announcement led to disclosure he was fired

Union Leader Correspondents

ATKINSON - On Feb. 5, selectmen convened a closed-door meeting about a complaint they received that day concerning Police Chief Phil Consentino and directed the town's attorney to hire a consultant to investigate the claim.

The results of a report delivered to selectmen on Wednesday led the board to terminating Consentino with cause. Selectmen voted to seal the nonpublic minutes of the two meetings that led to firing Consentino, who served as a part-time chief for 35 years, Town Administrator William Innes said.

But it was Consentino's own claim in a letter addressed to selectmen that he was "retiring" as police chief and director of elderly affairs that prompted the town to disclose that he was fired, according to Innes.

"We needed to set the record straight that he wasn't retiring," Innes said in an interview on Thursday at Town Hall.

Innes said Consentino, 72, never notified selectmen about his retirement letter, which cited recent health concerns and an intention to step down on April 2.

Town officials and lawyers involved in the matter have refused to comment about the complaint against Consentino, but Innes acknowledged on Thursday that Consentino's alleged actions could open the town to a possible lawsuit.

"There's always that kind of concern," he said.

Innes said he had no knowledge of the town being put on notice that a lawsuit was being considered against the town, or its former chief.

Consentino has worked as a police officer for 45 years, with 35 years as Atkinson's chief.

Consentino did not return a phone call seeking comment on Thursday.

"It is with sincere regret that due to some past and present health issues and this weekend's stay in the hospital I am retiring from both the police chief's position and as the town's director of elderly affairs," Consentino said in his letter addressed to selectmen.

Consentino's lawyer, Mark Giarrusso, said he hasn't seen the report from the independent consultant but was surprised to learn that selectmen chose to fire him Wednesday night.

"I don't know what the town is doing here. He's been talking about retiring for some time and over the past week he made it clear to them that he was going to retire," Giarrusso said, adding that Consentino is a "good guy" and that it was "time for him to move on."

Giarrusso said Consentino has had some health issues. He said the chief's job sometimes brought him headaches with some people "constantly harassing him."

"He's done a great job, especially in elderly affairs. People love him," Giarrusso said.

Giarrusso said he didn't know whether Consentino planned to appeal the firing.

Selectmen Fred Childs and William Friel didn't return phone calls seeking additional comment on Consentino's firing.

Selectman Todd Barbera said he wasn't able to comment because it's a personnel matter.

While some have praised Consentino for his dedication to the town, he has drawn controversy and been the target of lawsuits over the years.

He grabbed national headlines in 2003 when he tried to crack down on Massachusetts residents traveling over the border to trick-or-treat in his town on Halloween.

His dual role as police chief and elderly affairs director came under attack with some pushing to have elderly affairs removed from the police department.

A 2009 lawsuit by a taxpayers group accused him of bullying residents to defend his "turf" and running the town like a "stereotypical southern sheriff of the 1920s."

The lawsuit claimed Consentino harassed people who signed a petition in support of a warrant article that would establish a full-time, fully certified chief. It was a job that Consentino would not have been eligible for, the lawsuit said.

A judge ultimately threw out the harassment complaint against Consentino, and the remaining issues filed against the town were settled in 2011. Consentino was admonished and found in contempt by a superior court judge in September 2005 for continuing to participate in conversations about the police and elderly affairs departments while serving as a town selectman.

"Philip Consentino has lived in the town of Atkinson for over 50 years," Judge Kenneth McHugh said in a September 2005 decision. "Apparently, he concludes that that entitles him to consider Atkinson 'his town.' While no doubt over the years Mr. Consentino has done a lot of unpaid work for the betterment of the town, he has to recognize that because he has chosen to serve in more than one capacity, there are certain rules that he must follow."

In his letter, Consentino said he has been pleased with the support he and his family have received from the town and its residents.

He said the greatest part of his job was developing what he believes is one of the best senior citizen programs in southern New Hampshire.

With retirement approaching, Consentino wrote, "I look forward to working on my health problems, working around my farm and spending more time with my family."

Selectmen named police Sgt. Pat Caggiano as the town's acting police chief.

Caggiano, a longtime veteran of the Plaistow police department, joined Atkinson's police force within the last year.

Innes was appointed by selectmen as the acting director of elderly affairs.

jkimble@newstote.com and jschreiber@newstote.com