Vote puts Hooksett police panel on notice
In a 4-to-3 vote, the council voted no confidence in Commission Chairwoman Joanne McHugh, and Commissioners Kenneth Scherer and Clark Karolian.
Highlighting concerns about closed-door meetings that have kept the town in the dark about the changes occurring in the police department, and the lack of progress in hiring a new chief, Councilors James Sullivan, Leslie Boswak, Vincent Lembo and John Danforth supported the no-confidence vote.
But Councilors Todd Lizotte, Susan Lovas Orr and Nancy Comai opposed the measure, saying the commission had taken on the huge task of overhauling the police department. They said progress has been made and the commission is now busy with a top priority, the search for a new chief.
The no-confidence vote was triggered by a last-minute decision by consultants from Public Safety Strategies Group not to attend the meeting and provide an update on the work they have been doing with the Police Commission over the past nine months.
In November 2011, PSSG presented an audit of the Hooksett Police department that found a poorly developed culture, non-existent communication, a lack of appropriate tools and strategies, insufficient supervision for patrol officers, an arbitrary and ineffective disciplinary system and a pattern of careless department spending.
Last December, the Police Commission signed a one-year contract with PSSG for help putting into place the recommendations in their audit. PSSG is being paid with the salary that was freed up when former police chief Stephen Agrafiotis resigned in February.
Councilor Vincent Lembo said PSSG “cordially accepted” the council's invitation to attend the council meeting, but the consultants were told not to attend by McHugh.
“Two days before they were supposed to show up, Mrs. McHugh pulls them with an illegal phone call meeting that was never even posted,” said Lembo. “Mrs. McHugh told them not to come. It was a slap in the face to this council, and to everyone sitting out there waiting to hear their report.”
Neither McHugh or Kym Craven of PSSG responded to calls asking for comment.
Other council members expressed frustration with the Police Commission's long string of non-public meetings and its failure to provide updates and information to the town, particularly in regard to the search for a new chief.
Hooksett has been without a permanent chief since Agrafiotis was placed on administrative leave in September 2011, and Capt. Jon Daigle was appointed acting chief. Agrafiotis was suspended for violating town budget rules and paying $30,000 to retain three different law firms for lawsuits against the department.
Agrafiotis also generated controversy, and $225,000 in legal bills, in 2009 when he fired school resource officer Jason Defina, who was later reinstated, and with conflicts with police supervisors trying to unionize in 2009. Many of the problems with budgeting, discipline and morale described in PSSG's audit have been attributed to Agrafiotis.
Some Hooksett residents said the department was climbing back on track under Daigle, but last month the acting chief withdrew his name from consideration for the chief's job. In a letter explaining his decision, Daigle said the Police Commission's failure to complete his evaluation and offer any direction on future goals contributed to his decision.
Lembo said all the gains and improvements made in the Police Department over the past year were due to Daigle.
Boswak said she is worried the town will have trouble finding a new chief.
“All of this secrecy, and all of this behind-the-scenes meeting; it's not supposed to happen like this at all,” she said.
Lizotte, however, said the commission may be working quietly on complex issues, some of which involve personnel issues that aren't public information. Lizotte also said he felt the commission is working as fast as can be expected and is making progress.
“They are bringing the (police department) back from the ground up,” he said.
Other members of the council were concerned about the ramifications of a no-confidence vote, and whether it would mean they were moving toward dissolving the Police Commission. Boswak said her no-confidence vote was directed at the job the commission has done so far. She and most of the other council members expressed hope that the issues with the commission can be resolved.
The council voted to request that PSSG and the Police Commission attend their meeting on Sept. 26.
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Barbara Taormina may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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